CHETUMAL - Hurricane Paula intensified Tuesday as it headed for Mexico's resort-dotted Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba after drenching parts of Central America during a particularly active storm season.
Officials in the Mexican state Quintana Roo, where Cancun is located, issued alerts for several areas on the resort coast."The areas of Cozumel, Isla Mujeres and Lazaro Cardenas are on orange alert as they are the areas closest to the path of the hurricane," said Felix Gonzalez, governor of the state, who added that Cancun will also be affected.
Eduardo Sanchez, meteorologist at Mexico's weather service, said he expected the hurricane to hit land at approximately 11:00 pm (0400 GMT Wednesday) "with a path that passes through Cozumel and Cancun and Isla Mujeres affecting the southeast of the Yucatan Peninsula."
Paula strengthened to a category two on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, packing winds of 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour, according to the latest bulletin from the US-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) at 1745 GMT.
"Some slight strengthening is possible today and Wednesday," it added.
Mexican authorities warned people to remain inside, particularly on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Paula was around 140 miles (220 kilometers) southeast of Cozumel, the latest forecast said.
The ninth hurricane of the June-through-November Atlantic season was forecast to veer northeast toward Cuba later in the week, the NHC said.
Paula raised the troubling prospect of renewed flooding in already waterlogged Central America and Mexico, after weeks of devastation from recent heavy rains that sparked deadly mudslides.
The hurricane brought heavy rains to parts of Nicaragua and Honduras and was expected to dump another three to six inches (7.5 to 15 centimeters) of rain on the Yucatan and Cuba.
"In areas of mountainous terrain... these rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," the NHC warned.
Luis Carlos Rodriguez, head of Quintana Roo's civil defense department, said high pressure in the Gulf of Mexico was worsening the weather over the Yucatan.
"This system is bringing a considerable amount of water," he told AFP. Flooding and landslides have killed more than 400 people in Central America and Mexico, left tens of thousands homeless and caused billions of dollars in damage in recent months.
Mexico has suffered its worst rainy season on record, with a series of tropical storms and hurricanes which drenched large swathes of the country.
The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had predicted an especially stormy 2010, with 14 to 23 named storms for this season, including eight to 14 hurricanes.
On average, there are 11 named storms, six of which become hurricanes.