Hurricane Paul races toward Baja peninsula

LOS CABOS, Mexico -- Hurricane Paul weakened to a Category 1 storm as it raced toward landfall Tuesday on a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's southern Baja peninsula.

Authorities in the flood-prone city of Ciudad Constitution opened 26 shelters for local residents, and residents were advised to stay inside, stock up on drinking water and avoid panic.

Steady rain hit Cabo San Lucas on the southern tip of the peninsula, swamping some neighborhoods and leaving drivers stranded on flooded roads.

But Lixion Avila, a hurricane specialist the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm was weakening fast. "It's probably going to reach land as a minimal hurricane" within a couple of hours, he said, and once it moves inland over the peninsula's rough terrain, it will probably weaken even faster.

Hurricane Paul's center is expected to pass just west of Ciudad Constitucion and also skirt the small Baja California resort of Loreto, but the chain of mountains that runs up the spine of the peninsula may shelter its tranquil bay somewhat. Residents said a steady rain was falling in Loreto Tuesday,

Pascal Pellegrino, the Italian-born manager of the Oasis Hotel, said "here in Loreto, we're protected by the mountains."

"We don't foresee any big concern," he said, noting there were relatively few tourists in Loreto at present, perhaps 400 or 500, and there were places for them to take shelter if needed.

"We are very well organized," he noted, saying the worst that hotel keepers feared was a cut in electrical power, because transmission lines lie in the storm's path.

The National Hurricane Center said Paul's maximum sustained winds had decreased to 90 mph (150 kph) and that the storm was centered about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the fishing village of Puerto San Carlos. The storm was moving north at 18 mph (28 kph) and was expected to hit land within a couple of hours.

The state government canceled school, prepared shelters and urged resident to stay informed.

"We don't intend to alarm people unnecessarily," said Gov. Marcos Covarrubias Villasenor. "Rather we want citizens to be aware, don't cross streams unnecessarily, and stay in your homes if you don't need to leave to avoid creating traffic. The forecast is for heavy amounts of rainfall in most of the state."

The rain didn't scare many tourists on Mexico's southern Baja peninsula who saw the impending arrival of Hurricane Paul as a minor inconvenience.

Some went to Medano Beach on Monday to watch the heavy surf. Anthony Curtis of San Diego went for a stroll with his wife.

"It's only rain falling from the clouds," he said. "The hotel told us not to worry."

Paul had already passed by the heavily populated tourist areas of Los Cabos at the tip of the peninsula, and the capital, La Paz, on the eastern Gulf of California. But the state government as a precaution readied 143 shelters that could take up to 35,000 people in the tourist zone. Classes were suspended for Tuesday statewide, and ports were closed to small vessels in the capital, La Paz, Los Cabos and Comondu.

The storm was forecast to pass over the entire peninsula farther north near the town of Meluge, and then sweep back out to sea near the whale breeding grounds in the Vizcaino reserve, near the town of Guerrero Negro.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the western coast from Santa Fe north to Puerto San Andresito, and a tropical storm warning on Baja's western flank from north of Puerto San Andresito to Punta Abrejojos and also from Agua Blanca to south of San Fe. A tropical storm watch was in effect for north of Punta Abreojos to El Pocito.

In the Atlantic, meanwhile, Rafael reached hurricane strength late Monday south of Bermuda and was forecast to pass east of Bermuda by Tuesday afternoon or evening.