Saturday, November 8, 2008

'Extremely dangerous' Paloma heads for Cuba

Hurricane strengthens to Category 4 storm after battering Cayman Islands

GEORGE TOWN, Cayman Islands - Hurricane Paloma strengthened into an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm Saturday with top sustained winds of 135 mph, forecasters said.

Experts at the National Hurricane Center in Miami said data from a hurricane hunter aircraft indicated that shortly before 5 a.m. EST the storm's intensity increased.

A Category 4 storm is defined as having top sustained winds of at least 131 mph.

The late-season storm earlier brought wind and rain to the Cayman Islands, knocking down trees and signs.

Paloma is headed toward Cuba and could strike the hurricane-ravaged island Saturday.

Hurricanes Ike and Gustav struck the communist island in late August and together caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage.

Cuban official newspaper Granma, recalling past late-season hurricanes such as a 1932 storm that killed about 3,000 people, said Paloma poses "a potential danger for the island."

Havana's communist government activated the early stages of its highly organized civil defense system. In central and eastern Cuba, people were advised to stay tuned to state media for news of Paloma's progress and be ready to evacuate.

Paloma doused Honduras with heavy rains on Thursday, adding to misery in the impoverished Central American country where the U.N. estimates 70,000 people have been made homeless by recent storms.

Heavy rains and flooding in the region killed more than 30 people in recent weeks and left 16 people missing.

The weather system, which formed in the last month of what experts correctly predicted would be a busier than normal Atlantic hurricane season, posed no threat to U.S. oil installations in the Gulf of Mexico, according to computer models.

The Atlantic season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, has seen 16 tropical storms so far. Eight of those, including Paloma, later became hurricanes.

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