MIAMI – Paloma strengthened to a hurricane with winds near 75 mph on Thursday as it churned toward the Cayman Islands and Cuba.
Forecasters say the storm is expected to continue strengthening as it moves north over the next day.
A hurricane warning is in effect for the Cayman Islands, where the storm could dump up to 8 inches of rain, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Paloma may make landfall in Cuba over the weekend, and Jamaica was warned to also monitor its progress, the center said.
The Cayman Islands planned to close its main airport on Friday morning, although no mandatory evacuation will be issued, Tourism Minister Charles Clifford said.
"I hope I'm right, but I don't think this will be a major event," he said.
Extra flights had been added as of Thursday night for those wishing to leave, and American Airlines and Delta planned to fly in larger aircraft as well. Guests who remain on the island will be moved to higher floors in anticipation of flooding, he said.
Jack Nelson, 75, of Salisbury, Maryland, arrived a week ago with his wife. The couple decided to stay on the island until Saturday as planned because Nelson said a Category 1 hurricane was not something to fear, especially at the hotel where they were staying.
"I think it is very safe and it could take a Category 4 or 5," he said.
The Cayman Islands' top elected official, Kurt Tibbetts, urged residents not to wait until the last minute to prepare for the storm.
"History has taught us that we cannot afford complacency during hurricane season, for conditions can rapidly deteriorate," he said.
Grocery stores reported brisk business on Thursday, and some people had started to board up their windows. Dozens of cars snaked in lines around gas stations, with residents recalling how they were left without gas during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.
Officials toured low-lying regions, concerned that the onslaught of recent rains could lead to quicker flooding.
As a tropical storm earlier Thursday, Paloma dumped rain on the remote Nicaragua-Honduras border.
On Thursday evening, Paloma was located about 165 miles south of Grand Cayman and moving north near 12 mph. A gradual turn to the northeast is expected late Friday.