Hurricane Paul weakens to tropical storm off Baja

LOS CABOS, Mexico -- Hurricane Paul weakened into a tropical storm Tuesday as it neared landfall on a sparsely populated stretch of Mexico's southern Baja peninsula.

Even as the storm weakened during the day, authorities in the Gulf of California city of Mulege evacuated families in vulnerable areas or flimsy housing, and army and navy units were on hand for emergencies and disaster relief. Officials 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.

Lixion Avila, a hurricane specialist the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, said Paul would probably weaken even faster once it moved inland over the peninsula's rough terrain.

The storm's center was expected to pass just west of Ciudad Constitucion and also skirt the small Baja California resort of Loreto, but the chain of mountains running up the spine of the peninsula might shelter its tranquil bay somewhat. Residents said a steady rain was falling in Loreto.

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

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

Pellegrino said the worst problem that hotel keepers feared was a loss of electrical power, because transmission lines lay in the storm's expected path.

The National Hurricane Center said Paul's maximum sustained winds had decreased to 70 mph (110 kph). The storm was moving north at 14 mph (22 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 of La Paz, Los Cabos and Comondu.

The storm was forecast to pass up the peninsula to near the town of Meluge, and then sweep back out into the Pacific near the whale breeding grounds in the Vizcaino reserve, near the town of Guerrero Negro.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for the western coast from Santa Fe north to El Pocito and in the east from San Evaristo to Bahia San Juan Bautista.

In the Atlantic, meanwhile, Hurricane Rafael moved rapidly northward to the east of Bermuda on Tuesday night, pelting the British territory with rain and wind..