By Jeff Franks
HAVANA, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Cuba put aside the work of recovering from the two powerful hurricanes that have already struck this storm season to prepare on Friday for Hurricane Paloma spinning toward the eastern half of the island.
While Paloma was less powerful than hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which raked Cuba two months ago, it posed a new threat to a region where homes, power lines, roads and other infrastructure were still being repaired and damage to agriculture has contributed to a national food shortage.
The damage has come at a delicate time for Cuba as new President Raul Castro shepherds the communist country following the retirement of aging, and ailing, revolutionary leader Fidel Castro earlier this year, and as world economic woes force Cubans to tighten their belts.
Cuban officials said they had evacuated at least 85,000 boarding school students on Friday and would soon begin moving people from flood-prone areas ahead of the storm's landfall late on Saturday.
State-run television showed workers covering stores of goods with plastic to protect them from the storm and young people hastily picking fruit from trees to salvage as much of the harvest as possible.
In ranching areas, cattle were being moved to higher ground. To ease potential flooding, water was being released from reservoirs still full from Ike's torrential rains.
Cubans in the projected storm path viewed Paloma's approach with resignation.
"Bad luck, friend. Looks like this year they want to demolish us in every way," said Antonio Linares, a tourism worker in Holguin province.
"There was already a lot of destruction (from the earlier storms). We don't get out of one hurricane before another one comes," said Genoveva Licea in Granma province.
Gustav and Ike caused at least $5 billion in damage, including the damage or destruction of almost 450,000 homes. Only 20 percent of them have been fully repaired, according to the most recent reports in state-run media.
The storms also destroyed 30 percent of Cuba's crops, which has forced the government to scramble to prevent a food crisis. Markets have a limited quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables and some food items have become hard to find.
Vice President Carlos Lage said this week 2.4 million Cubans in the hardest hit areas are receiving extra food in the monthly rations the government provides to Cubans.
He said food imports have been increased to get through shortages that are expected to last several more months.
Before the storms, President Raul Castro had warned that rising expenditures for fuel and imports would bring government belt-tightening and slow his promise to raise salaries.
Gustav hit the Isle of Youth and westernmost Pinar del Rio with 150 mile per hour winds (241 kilometers per hour), while Ike struck eastern Cuba with 120 mph winds and 15-inches (38 cm) of rain, then rampaged through the heart of the country.
Paloma, with 105 mph winds (168 kph) on Friday, looked less forbidding, but still bad, said store worker Ofelia Hernandez in Camaguey province, where the storm was expected to make landfall.
"It's a bad dream," she said. "Barely two months and once again in checkmate."
(Additional reporting by Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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