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Watch issued for Florida Keys as Paula churns toward Cuba

Category 2 Hurricane Paula was brushing the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula Wednesday and heading for Cuba, forecasters said, triggering a tropical storm warning for portions of the Florida Keys.

As of 2 p.m. ET, the center of Paula was moving over the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, the Miami, Florida-based National Hurricane Center said. It was located about 55 miles (90 kilometers) west-southwest of the western tip of Cuba.

Paula was expected to turn northeast toward Cuba within the next few hours, forecasters said. Its eye was clearly visible on Cancun and western Cuba radar.

The storm was packing winds of 100 mph (160 kph). It was nearly stationary, but was expected to begin moving north-northeast at near 5 mph (7 kph) later, the Hurricane Center said.

“The small core of Hurricane Paula will continue to move over the Yucatan Channel today and be near or over western Cuba by tonight or early Thursday,” the Hurricane Center said.

A hurricane warning for the Yucatan was canceled, but a tropical storm warning was in effect for the Mexican coast from Cancun to Cabo Catoche and from Cancun to San Felipe. A hurricane warning remained in effect for the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio.

A tropical storm watch was issued for the Florida Keys, from Craig Key westward, including the Dry Tortugas, the Hurricane Center said. A tropical storm watch means tropical storm conditions are possible within 48 hours.

Tropical storm-force winds affecting Mexico are forecast to diminish later Wednesday, forecasters said. Tropical storm-force winds are anticipated to reach western Cuba by Wednesday afternoon, with hurricane conditions expected Wednesday night. Winds are forecast to increase over the middle and lower Florida Keys late Thursday, the Hurricane Center said.

Paula tipped the scales into hurricane strength Tuesday and intensified quickly to a Category 2 storm.

The storm is forecast to weaken Wednesday night. Tracking maps show Paula decreasing to a Category 1 as it nears Cuba, moving over the island as a tropical storm between Thursday and Saturday and becoming a tropical depression over central Cuba on Sunday.

The Hurricane Center has described Paula as “small,” given that its hurricane-force winds extend outward only up to 15 miles (30 kilometers) from the center and tropical strength-force winds extend outward up to 60 miles (95 kilometers).

Paula is predicted to drop 3 to 6 inches of rain over parts of western and central Cuba, with maximum amounts of 10 inches in isolated areas. That could cause flash floods and mudslides, the center said.

In addition, a storm surge is forecast to raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet above normal levels along the immediate coast of extreme western Cuba, the Hurricane Center said, accompanied by “large and destructive waves.”

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