HAVANA – Hurricane Paula inched toward the west coast of Cuba early Thursday, dumping heavy rain on the island's famed tobacco fields even as it weakened. Officials said they were optimistic the system would not bring a repeat of the devastation wrought by three monster storms in 2008.
Still, the storm's slow slog over the island disrupted ferry service, turned rutted country roads into red-brown muddy quagmires and promised to lash coastal areas with dangerously high waves.
At 5 a.m., Paula was a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
The hurricane's small core was centered some 30 miles (60 kilometers) north of the westernmost tip of Cuba amid reports of heavy rain in the region, a day after Paula brushed Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. It had been a Category 2 storm on Wednesday.
Paula was moving northeast at about 5 mph (7 kph), the center said. U.S. forecasters predicted more gradual weakening by the storm over the next day, though heavy rain was expected.
Cuban authorities issued a tropical storm warning for Havana and areas surrounding the capital as western Cuba began to feel the heavy rains.
Forecasters said Paula threatened a storm surge and anywhere between 3 and 6 inches of rainfall on parts of Cuba. The storm was small in area, with hurricane force winds extending just 10 miles (20 kilometers) from its center.
Mexican authorities earlier said American Mickey Goodwin, 54, of Corpus Christi, Texas, drowned Tuesday while swimming off a Cancun beach after he ignored warnings and red flags alerting to dangerous waters from the storm.
It was the only fatality reported so far.
Cuba's chief meteorologist, Jose Rubiera, said Paula was expected to weaken as it moved slowly across the western part of the island. He said rains would also be weaker than once expected, but warned they could still cause problems in some areas.
"This is really a very small hurricane," Rubiera said. "The rains at times could be strong or intense in some areas of Pinar del Rio, but the truth is they shouldn't be that strong. They could be prolonged, however, and that could lead to heavy accumulation."
Despite the tropical storm warning in effect for the capital, Rubiera said Paula would likely have weakened to a tropical depression "if that" by the time it reached Havana on Friday.
In Pinar del Rio, many residents shuttered themselves indoors as heavy rain began falling Wednesday. Veterinarian Humberto Rodriguez and his 13-year-old daughter, Maria, made their way slowly in a horse and buggy down a highway near the town of Los Palacios, heading to their home nearby.
"I'm evacuating my daughter from boarding school and we're going home to prepare," said Rodriguez, 48. "I hope this one will not be as strong as the others."
Cuban officials were taking no chances.
The communist government activated the island's crack Civil Defense forces, which declared an alarm for Pinar del Rio and the Isla de la Juventud. Ferry service to the island was suspended Wednesday afternoon. Residents of western Cuba were urged to cover up windows with plywood, tie down loose items and stay vigilant for flooding and heavy rains. No evacuations were ordered.
Cuba's always-weak economy was devastated when Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma hit Pinar del Rio and other parts of the island in 2008, starting in late August. Fruit and vegetables disappeared off shelves, with shortages exacerbated by widespread hoarding. Some 1,200 people were arrested for hurricane-related crimes, with islanders accused of stealing everything from gasoline and cement to rice and powdered milk.
In all, the trio of storms did an estimated $10 billion in damage - or a quarter of Cuba's total GDP - a terrible blow for a country already reeling from the global economic downturn, a fall off in tourism and a drop in prices for nickel and other raw materials.
Cuba was spared a direct hurricane hit in 2009 and the early months of the hurricane season in 2010, welcome news as it tries to revamp its state-dominated economy. The government recently announced it would lay off half a million workers, while allowing more private enterprise.
Pinar del Rio is known for its high-quality tobacco fields and is crucial for Cuba's famed cigar industry. Growers had planned to begin planting tobacco on Tuesday ahead of next year's harvest, though many likely held off until the storm passed.
Hurricane specialist Robbie Berg at the National Hurricane Center in Miami noted that because Paula had slowed, it could actually raise the threat of heavy rainfall.
"Small storms are a little more volatile. They can strengthen more rapidly and weaken more rapidly so they are a little more unpredictable," Berg told The Associated Press. "Whenever a storm is moving slower it's going to spend a longer time over any particular area, dumping heavy rain."
"Right now, western Cuba is under the gun."
The middle and lower Florida Keys were put under a tropical storm watch even though no U.S. landfall is forecast at this time, he said.
Associated Press reporter Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun, Mexico and AP television producer Fernando Gonzalez in Pinar del Rio, Cuba contributed to this report.