HAVANA, Cuba — Hurricane Paula weakened Wednesday on a crawl toward the lush tobacco-growing farmlands of western Cuba, threatening to inundate an area still seeking to recover from three major hurricanes in 2008.
Wednesday evening Paula remained a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. It had been a Category 2 storm earlier in the day.
The hurricane's small core was centered about 30 miles west of Cuba's westernmost tip amid reports of heavy rain in the region, hours after Paula brushed past Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
After stalling briefly on Wednesday afternoon, Paula began a slog to the north-northeast at about 3 mph, the center said amid forecasts of a turn today more to the northeast and east.
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The hurricane was expected to pass very near or over western Cuba sometime Wednesday night or early today, U.S. forecasters added. They predicted more gradual weakening by the storm over the next day or two amid possible heavy rains.
Cuban authorities issued a tropical storm warning for Havana and areas surrounding the capital as western Cuba braced.
Forecasters said Paula threatened a storm surge and anywhere from 3 to 6 inches of rainfall on parts of Cuba. The storm was small in area, with hurricane force winds extending just 10 miles from its center.
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."
The middle and lower Florida Keys were put under a tropical storm watch even though no U.S. landfall is forecast at this time, said hurricane specialist Robbie Berg at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.