Diminutive Hurricane Paula weakens further
* Top winds drop to 80 mph (130 kph)
* Landfall seen on Thursday in western Cuba
* Forecast to hit Havana Friday as tropical storm or less (Updates with latest position, weakening, quote)
By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Oct 13 (Reuters) - A diminished Hurricane Paula weakened further on Wednesday as it crept nearer to western Cuba on a path toward the country's tobacco-growing region and eventually Havana.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said top winds of the Category 1 storm -- the lowest on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale -- had dropped to 80 miles per hour (130 kph) and extended just 10 miles (20 km) from the eye.
Its center was 30 miles (45 km) west of Cuba's westernmost province, Pinar del Rio, where landfall was expected on Thursday as the storm drifted north-northeast through the Yucatan Channel at 3 mph (6 kph), the Miami-based center said in its latest advisory.
It said Paula was destined to become a tropical storm, which has winds between 39 and 73 mph ((63 to 117 kph), on Thursday and "degenerate to a remnant low within a couple of days."
Intermittently heavy rains and winds up to 37 mph (61 kph) were reported along the coast and expected to filter inland overnight. A storm surge up to 4 feet (1.2 metres) was forecast.
The hurricane center said the storm could dump 3 to 6 inches (7.5 to 15 cm) of rain, with up to 10 inches (25 cm) possible in mountainous areas.
Local officials said freshly planted fields of Pinar del Rio's prized tobacco, from which world-famous Cuban cigars are made, had been protected and leaves from the previous harvest safely stored.
Officials were encouraging but not yet ordering residents of low-lying areas to move to higher ground in case of flooding.
Earlier in the day, Paula, the 16th named storm of the busy 2010 Atlantic season and the ninth hurricane, grazed Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula but inflicted little damage to the tourist resorts on the country's Caribbean coast.
NO EFFECT ON GULF OIL FIELDS
The hurricane did not affect any of Mexico's main offshore oil-producing regions in the Gulf of Mexico and was not expected to move into the U.S. oil and gas fields in the Gulf.
The storm, which had 100-mph (160-kph) winds at its peak, was in warm waters normally hospitable for hurricanes, but wind shear was sapping its strength, forecasters said.
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The Miami-based hurricane center said Paula was on a path to hit Havana by early on Friday and posted tropical storm warnings for the scenic but crumbling city where high winds and heavy rains routinely topple decaying buildings.
Cuba suffers few deaths from hurricanes because evacuations are mandatory and efficiently executed.
The Cuban weather service said it expected the storm to be just a tropical depression by the time it reached Havana and would bring much-needed rain to western Cuba.
The island has still not fully recovered from three powerful hurricanes that struck in 2008, causing $10 billion in damage and dealt a serious blow to the country's fragile economy.
Many people were moving refrigerators and other valuables out of harm's way because memories of 2008 were fresh in their minds, said Jesus Bacallao, 69, a resident of the tobacco-growing town of San Juan y Martinez.
"With these things, you never know," he said. "In the 2008 storms, several tobacco barns were knocked over and we still haven't forgotten the fear we felt."
Cuban television said the local banana harvest had been speeded up and livestock moved to safe areas. Pinar del Rio is not a big sugar-producing region on the island.
A tropical storm watch also was issued for part of the Florida Keys, 90 miles (145 km) north of Cuba.
Paula, which formed off the coast of Honduras on Monday, spared Central America's coffee-growing region, battered this year by heavy rains. (Additional reporting by Esteban Israel in Pinar del Rio, Nelson Acosta in Havana and Isela Serrano in Cancun; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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