By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA, Associated Press Writer Anne-marie Garcia, Associated Press Writer – 9 mins ago
CAMAGUEY, Cuba – Once-ferocious Hurricane Paloma weakened into a tropical storm over Cuba on Sunday after flooding the southern coast with crashing waves and a powerful storm surge on an island still reeling from two recent hurricanes.
Early reports of damage were limited, but Cuban state media said the late-season storm toppled a major communications tower, interrupted electricity and phone service and sent sea water almost a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland near where it made landfall.
Vicente de la O of Cuba's national power company told state television Sunday that damage to the power grid was far less than that caused by hurricanes Gustav and Ike in late August and early September. No storm-related deaths were immediately reported.
Paloma made landfall near Santa Cruz del Sur late Saturday as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane but quickly lost strength, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Forecasters said the Cuban and Bahamian governments discontinued all warnings associated with Paloma.
The storm was steadily losing strength as it meandered across Cuba on Sunday and was expected to reach the central Bahamas as a weak area of low pressure on Monday morning. The storm was expected to unravel and not threaten the southern tip of Florida.
In the central-eastern Cuban province of Camaguey, more than 220,000 people were evacuated from low-lying areas. Another 170,000 people were moved in the eastern province of Las Tunas.
Cuba regularly relocates masses of people to higher ground before tropical storms and hurricanes, preventing major losses of life.
In the city of Camaguey, 79-year-old Rosa Perez waited out the storm at a government shelter with her 83-year-old husband and about 900 others from the town of Santa Cruz del Sur.
Perez was a toddler when she watched as her mother, older sister and about 40 other relatives were swept away in a storm surge during a 1932 hurricane that killed about 3,000 people.
"We're just waiting to see what happens to our home and our beach," she said.
Fellow Santa Cruz del Sur resident Aida Perez, who is not related, watched the news with her daughters, ages 19 and 10.
"This is a really hard blow," the 44-year-old said. She was certain they would lose their home and everything in it. "What's important is that we are alive."
Outside on the nearly deserted, flooded streets, four men struggled in pouring rain to carry a refrigerator to a more secure building.
At 1500 GMT (10 a.m. EST) Sunday, Paloma's center was near Camaguey. Once as strong as 145 mph (230 kph), the storm's winds had weakened to 60 mph (95 kph). Paloma was drifting northeast at about 2 mph (4 kph).
In an essay published in state media Saturday, former President Fidel Castro warned that Paloma could slow Cuba's recovery from Gustav and Ike, which caused about $9.4 billion in damage and destroyed nearly a third of the island's crops.
Earlier, Paloma downed trees, flooded low-lying areas and damaged roofs in the Cayman Islands. But residents appeared to weather the hurricane unscathed.
Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from Havana.