News: Tropical storm Paula hits Cuba

TROPICAL Storm Paula tore through Cuba today, bringing heavy rains and strong winds, and testing the island’s rickety infrastructure two years after string of devastating hurricanes.

Paula lost its status as a category one hurricane just before making landfall in Cuba’s western tobacco growing area, but was still dangerous enough for authorities to issue alerts and residents to prepare for the worst.

The country is still recovering from disastrous 2008 hurricane season, when the island was slammed by a trio of major hurricanes. Those storms killed seven people and caused some $US10 billion in damage that the country’s frail economy can ill afford.

With that memory still fresh, locals feared calamity.

“We are always fearful when there is a powerful storm, especially when one has children and grandchildren,” said Blanca Herrera, 49, who lives in the western Pinar del Rio province and lost her home to the 2008 storms.

“Now it is a tropical storm, but one never knows, nature is unpredictable,” she told AFP.

In Havana, home to more than two million Cubans, the heavy rain flooded roads and forced a halt in the delivery of gas to large parts of the city, while the wind toppled trees and lampposts.

The storm triggered blackouts and cut water services to vast areas of the city.

“In some areas the re-establishment of these and other services could be delayed in accordance with the level of damage, which has not been officially quantified,” the sate-run National Information Agency said.

The Miami-based National Hurricane Center said in its late Thursday bulletin that an 87 kilometre per hour wind gust was reported in Havana.

“The rain is very heavy, but the ugliest part is the high wind,” said Carmen Gonzalez, 42, who lives near the ocean in Miramar, just west of Havana. “Now I’m without power and I need to watch television to catch the weather report.
I have food ready if anything happens.”

One big fear was that rain would damage the 16th century colonial downtown area.

At 0000 GMT today local time (11am AEDT)  the centre of Paula was over Cuba’s northern coast after having passed “over or just south of Havana,” the NHC said.

The storm was moving towards the east at 22 kilometres an hour with maximum sustained winds at around 90 kilometres an hour, with higher gusts.

Paula was expected to dump up to 25 centimetres of rain in some areas, which “could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides,” the NHC warned.

“Gradual weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours and Paula is expected to become a tropical depression on Friday,” the bulletin added.

General Ramon Pardo Guerra, head of Cuba’s civil defence authority, earlier urged western Cuba residents to “take all possible measures to protect life and property,” but downgraded the alert as the storm weakened.

Tropical Storm Nicole struck Cuba two weeks ago, cutting off villages and damaging farmland, but also raising depleted water reserves.

En route to Cuba, Paula, which at its peak was a category two hurricane on the five level Saffir-Simpson scale, brushed Mexico’s coastal resort areas on the Yucatan Peninsula but caused little damage, local authorities said.

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