GRAND CAYMAN, Cayman Islands – Hurricane Paloma exploded in strength Friday, growing into a hulking Category 3 storm and forcing residents of the Cayman Islands and Cuba to brace for direct hits this weekend.
People rushed to emergency shelters and toward high ground throughout the Cayman Islands, where Paloma’s rapid development caught many off guard.
“This storm sneaked up on us,” said Paul Aiken, a Grand Cayman businessman who was trying to find a high spot to stash his vehicles. “We thought this was a tropical depression, and then suddenly it is a hurricane heading straight for Grand Cayman.”
Friday night, Paloma – not expected to harm South Florida – was a Category 3 hurricane with 115-mph maximum sustained winds centered about 275 miles southwest of Camaguey, Cuba, and 30 miles south of Grand Cayman, which was being battered by tropical storm-force winds. Officials told islanders to prepare for foul weather through Saturday night.
The National Hurricane Center’s storm specialists said Paloma likely will remain a major hurricane until later today as it heads for Cuba’s south-central coast.
Paloma is projected to make landfall in Cuba late today as a powerful Category 2 storm with about 100 mph winds. The government issued hurricane warnings for the provinces of Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey and Las Tunas, and a tropical storm warning for the province of Granma.
Cuban residents readied themselves for what appears will be the fourth tropical pounding of the season, after Tropical Storm Fay, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike caused billions of dollars in damage.