Hurricane Paul weakening as it races toward Baja

LOS CABOS, Mexico -- Hurricane Paul was weakening rapidly and was "barely a hurricane" as it raced toward landfall Tuesday on a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's southern Baja peninsula.

Still, civil protections authorities in the Gulf of California city of Mulege decided to begin evacuating families in vulnerable areas or flimsy housing, and army and navy units were on hand for emergencies and disaster relief. 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.

"It's probably going to reach land as a minimal hurricane," Lixion Avila, a hurricane specialist the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, adding that 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 75 mph (120 kph) and that the storm was still off shore near the fishing village of Puerto San Carlos. The storm was moving north at 15 mph (24 kph).

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 Punta Abreojos and in the east from San Evaristo to Mulege. A tropical storm warning was in effect on Baja's western flank from north of Punta Abreojos to El Pocito, also from Agua Blanca to south of San Fe, La Paz to south of San Evaristo and north of Mulege to Bahia San Juan Bautista.

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.