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Claudette loses some strength, passes Jamaica

Fishermen dragged their skiffs to shore and braced for violent winds and battering waves Wednesday as Tropical Storm Claudette raged off Jamaica's south coast.

Claudette could grow to a hurricane as it advances toward Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, forecasters said.

A cruise line diverted three ships to avoid the storm.

Jamaica's government urged people in flood-prone areas to be on alert and warned fishermen to stay in port.

Joseph Brown, 40, said he wasn't taking any chances as he pulled his wooden skiff ashore in Port Royal, just south of Kingston.

"You can't hear something like that and stay out at sea," he said. "But we survived (Hurricane) Gilbert, so we can make it through this."

Gilbert struck Jamaica in 1988, killing 45 people and destroying $1-billion of property with torrential rains and 145 mph winds.

Claudette was nowhere near as strong, but officials warned it still could do damage.

The third tropical storm of the season, Claudette developed quickly in the Caribbean and was upgraded from a disorganized tropical wave Tuesday afternoon.

Experts have predicted a busy season, which began June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

The storm's sustained winds were at 70 mph early Wednesday, but by midday a U.S. Air Force plane measured them at 65 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said.

At 11 p.m., the storm was centered near latitude 16.3 N, longitude 81.0 W, or about 205 miles south of Grand Cayman. It was moving west at 21 mph and had sustained winds of 60 mph.

Despite the storm's slight weakening, emergency officials remained ready to evacuate residents in low-lying areas.

Upper-level winds appeared to be taking away some of the storm's strength, making it unlikely to grow into a hurricane Wednesday, said Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist at the center.

Beyond 24 hours, though, "conditions may become more favorable" for strengthening, he said. Tropical storms become hurricanes when sustained winds reach 74 mph.

Royal Caribbean International diverted three cruise ships to the Bahamas, including one moored at Ocho Rios, Jamaica, one at the Mexican island of Cozumel and one about to depart from Miami, spokesman Michael Sheehan said.

A light rain fell from cloudy skies in southern Jamaica.

Mexico issued a hurricane watch for the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Chetumal to Cabo Catoche. Claudette was projected to arrive there by this afternoon or early Friday.

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