MIAMI – Late-season Hurricane Paloma strengthened slightly early Saturday as the Category 3 storm lashed the Cayman Islands with wind and rain, knocking down trees and signs.
The storm had top sustained winds near 120 mph but was expected to lose some strength before punching Cuba's midsection on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Cuba already is suffering from billions of dollars in damage from two previous hurricanes this season.
"It's not like it's new to them, unfortunately," said Dave Roberts, a U.S. Navy hurricane specialist. "If I were living on the island, I would at least prepare for a Category 2."
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."
The Cayman Islands government asked all hotels to remove guests from the ground and first floors. Nearly 40 people were already staying in the islands' seven shelters.
Water service across Grand Cayman was turned off, and power likely will be cut as the storm nears, hazard management director Barbara Carby said.
"We have asked everybody to come off the streets and to be home and safe right now," she said.
Stranded tourists watched dark clouds gather and saw the storm whip up 10-foot (3-meter) waves from their hotels or beachfront restaurants.
"It was a real surprise," said Rick Douglas, 50, of Toronto, who checked weather Web sites before flying to the Caribbean. "It just said there was a tropical depression starting, but I didn't think it would turn into anything serious."
His wife, Susan Douglas, was confident they would be safe as long as they follow orders.
"Grand Cayman has been there and done that, so they are prepared," she said.
Paloma grew into a dangerous major hurricane with 115 mph top winds Friday. At 1 a.m. EST, the storm was centered about 50 miles east of Grand Cayman, heading northeast near 8 mph.
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 was aiming toward the central-eastern city of Camaguey, which was particularly hard-hit by Hurricane Ike in early September.
Ike and Hurricane Gustav, which struck the island in late August, together caused an estimated $9.4 billion in damage. Nearly a third of Cuba's crops were destroyed, causing widespread shortages of fresh produce and prompting authorities to order the planting of vegetable greens and other short-term vegetables.
Forecasters expect Paloma to weaken into a tropical storm over Cuba and then steer south of Florida through the Bahamas and into the Atlantic.
Cayman Islands Gov. Stuart Jack said Friday that a British Royal Navy ship was on the way and would be available to provide humanitarian assistance if needed.
The airport closed Friday morning after extra flights were added to fly out some people late Thursday.
Muniran Charran, a construction worker from Guyana, said he first heard about the storm Thursday night over the radio.
"We didn't really have any time to prepare because the banks and the stores all closed so early today," he said.
He was drinking beers with friends in the downstairs lobby of their beachfront apartment complex.
"What we've been seeing all day is just a lot of rain and strong winds," Guyana native Shik Khan said. "We hope that when we wake up, everything is fine."