Hurricane Maria regained Category 5 strength in the Caribbean after leaving the small island nation of Dominica with widespread devastation.
The “extremely dangerous” storm churned about 205 miles (325 km) southeast of St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 km/h), the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said early on Tuesday.
Maria was expected to whip up storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 9 feet (2.7 m) above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, it said.
The storm plowed through Dominica, an island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing widespread devastation, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a Facebook post.
“I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating … indeed, mind boggling. My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.
With maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), the storm slammed into the island as a Category 5 hurricane, the NHC said.
“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said. “The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn-away roofs in the city and the countryside.”
While the intensity of the hurricane may fluctuate over the next day or two, Maria is expected to remain a category 4 or 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the Miami-based NHC said. Forecasters have warned Maria would likely intensify over the next 24 hours or longer, noting its eye had shrunk to a compact 10 miles across and warning: “Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye.”
That generally means an extremely strong hurricane will get even mightier, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. He said it just like when a spinning ice skater brings in their arms and rotates faster.
The storm was on track to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea and, by Tuesday night or early on Wednesday, approach the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where millions are still reeling from Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a Category 4 storm swept the US island territory in 1932, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm in 1998, he said.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, urged island residents on Twitter to brace for the storm’s arrival, saying, “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter.”
Puerto Rico narrowly avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Hurricane Irma, which reached a rare Category 5 status and ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record before devastating several smaller islands, including the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp said Maria was due to pass within 10 miles of the island of St. Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma’s clout on September 6. The island is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.
Mapp warned that hurricane-force winds were expected to howl across St. Croix for eight hours, accompanied by up to a foot and a half (46 cm) of rain that would be followed by nearly a week of additional showers.
At an evening news conference, he predicted most islanders would be without electricity for weeks, and that “some folks will not get power in months”. A curfew will be imposed starting at 10 a.m. local time on Tuesday, he said.
Forecasts predict Maria will be the worst storm to hit St. Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.
The territory’s two other main islands, St. Thomas and St. John, which lie to the north of St. Croix, sustained widespread heavy damage from Irma, which killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the US mainland.
Authorities in the US territory of Puerto Rico, which faced the possibility of a direct hit, warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm’s expected arrival there on Wednesday.
“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” said Hector Pesquera, the island’s public safety commissioner. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”
The French island of Martinique escaped Maria largely unscathed but a communications
blackout with Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, a senior French Civil Protection official said on Tuesday.
“In Martinique, reconnaissance operations are still underway but already we can see that there is no significant damage,” Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection and crisis response, told a news briefing in Paris.
To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the US East Coast, though forecasters said the storm was unlikely to make landfall.
A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York’s Long Island and Connecticut. Jose’s center was about 365 miles (590 kilometers) south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, early Tuesday and moving north at 9 mph (15 kph). The storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph).
Maria marks the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane – defined as Category 3 or higher – following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017.