By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Nov 9 (Reuters) - Hurricane Paloma toppled trees, damaged homes and knocked over a communications tower when it ripped through Cuba on Sunday after striking the coast with 120-mph (195-kph) winds.
It is the island's third major storm of the year.
It had grown to a Category 4 with 145-mph winds while barging through the wealthy Cayman Islands, where it ripped roofs off houses and storm shelters and flooded streets, before heading to Cuba.
But it came ashore in Cuba on Saturday as a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson intensity scale, and weakened further to a Category 2 with top sustained winds near 100 mph by 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT) as it crossed the island and headed toward the Atlantic, forecasters at the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
They expected Paloma to continue weakening over the next day or two, even after it moved off Cuba's coast and headed toward the Bahamas.
Cuban state-run television reported widespread blackouts and said a communications tower had fallen in the province of Camaguey, where Paloma made landfall on Saturday evening near the town of Santa Cruz del Sur.
Rains of up 10 inches (25 cm) were predicted, with more possible in mountainous areas, the hurricane center said.
A storm surge up to 20 feet (6 metres) had caused coastal flooding, pushing the sea as much as 2,300 feet (700 metres) inland and flooding hundreds of homes. Television reports showed waves whipped up over coastal barriers, a beached boat listing on its side and, on shore, trees bending in the wind.
"The weather is really bad. It's raining heavily and the wind is blowing strong," said Mirtha, who was on watch in the Communist Party headquarters in Santa Cruz del Sur.
"I almost cannot open the windows but I can see some small palm trees that have fallen over," she said, declining to give her full name.
Paloma, the eighth hurricane of a busy 2008 Atlantic storm season, came on the heels of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which caused an estimated $8 billion in damage when they devastated Cuba within 10 days of each other in August and September.
Paloma was the second most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the month of November and struck almost 76 years to the day after a cyclone killed 3,000 in the same part of Cuba.
Cuba said more than a million people were evacuated as Paloma approached. So far, no deaths or injuries had been reported, but the storm promised to set back recovery efforts from Ike, which rampaged across much of the country.
"It's been such an effort to repair what Ike destroyed and now Paloma may knock it all down again. It's as if you finally dug yourself out of a hole in the ground and were pushed right back in," construction worker Orlando Estrada said in Holguin.
"I just repaired last week my roof that Ike destroyed," said construction worker Artemio Gonzalez in Las Tunas. "It will make me scream if Paloma breaks it again."
Ike and Gustav damaged almost 450,000 homes and devastated crops, compounding Cuba's economic woes at a time when President Raul Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel Castro in February, had already warned of belt-tightening because of global financial turmoil.
In a statement published on Saturday, Fidel Castro rejected any aid from archfoe the United States before it was even offered, demanding instead that Washington lift economic sanctions tightened by U.S. President George W. Bush.
Paloma pounded the British Caribbean territory of the Cayman Islands overnight. George Town, the capital and a major offshore financial center, appeared to have escaped the worst, but there were reports of heavier damage in the smaller islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
Paloma's winds were "like a brick slamming against a wall," said Moses Kirkconnell, a government minister for the smaller islands. "We have got major damage but no major casualties."
On Little Cayman, the roof of an apartment building caved in, trapping several people who had to be rescued.
(Additional reporting by Shurna Robbins in George Town, Rosa Tania Valdes and Marc Frank in Havana; writing by Patricia Zengerle, editing by Alison Williams)
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