Hurricane Maria could begin battering the Leeward Islands with fierce winds as early as this afternoon, National Hurricane Center forecasters said at 2 p.m.
The Category 3 storm, with sustained winds now reaching 125 mph, was located 45 miles east-northeast of Martinique. A hurricane hunter plane sent to investigate the storm Monday found Maria has continued to intensify and forecasters say it’s likely the storm could rapidly gain strength over the next two days as it nears the islands hit hard by Irma a week ago.
Across the islands, government officials urged residents to hurry preparations as time runs out.
“This is not a time for heroism," Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a morning press conference.
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In St. Kitts and Nevis, Foreign Affairs Minister Mark Brantely tweeted that the islands are "praying for God's mercy."
Forecasters said little stands in the way of Maria rapidly strengthening. Wind shear is low, tropical waters are warm and the storm has organized into a tight spin with a solid core. By Friday, the storm could hit the Turks and Caicos, another Irma victim, as it heads toward the Bahamas. Winds may slow slightly, but forecasters still expect it to be a major storm.
Hurricane conditions are likely to begin Tuesday afternoon across the U.S. Virgin Islands, Vieques and Culebra and across Puerto Rico late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service’s San Juan office said. Hurricane force winds will likely continue across the eastern islands through late Wednesday and across Puerto Rico Thursday, almost exactly a week after Irma’s eye crossed the Virgin Islands and past the north coast of Puerto Rico, battering the islands with heavy winds and surf for about nine hours. The last hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico, Colorado State meteorologist Phil Klotzbach said, was Hurricane Georges, which went on to hit Key West.
It’s not yet clear what threat Maria poses to Florida or the U.S. coast. A high pressure ridge is steering the storm and should keep it heading to the west-northwest over the next three days, forecasters said. In about five days, the ridge should weaken and allow the storm to turn to the north-northwest taking it away from Florida. Hurricane Jose, off the coast of the Carolinas, is expected to play a part in weakening the ridge later in the week as it moves to the northeast.
Models take the storm offshore up the U.S. east coast, but forecasts four to five days in advance can be off by as much as 225 miles.
Unlike Irma, Maria is a compact storm, with hurricane winds extending just 15 miles from the center — Irma’s reached 80 miles — and tropical storm force winds reaching 125 miles. Maria formed much further east, so it hasn’t had time to undergo eyewall replacements that built Irma into a beast capable of spreading devastating winds across islands and from coast to coast in Florida. The compact size, however, also makes Maria more unpredictable when it comes to intensification.
Heavy rain, from six to 12 inches, could fall in the central and southern Leeward Islands and Virgin Islands through Wednesday. Amounts as high as 20 inches are possible in some places. Puerto Rico could get see the same, but with some places facing up to 25 inches and capable of triggering dangerous flash floods and mudslides.
Last week, Irma became one of the strongest hurricanes on record, maintaining winds over 180 mph for nearly two days. Islands in the storm's path suffered widespread devastation. On Barbuda, more than 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed, including the hospital and airport. Irma hit St. Martin with Category 5-force winds, turning the picturesque island into a jumble of blown apart buildings and shredded trees.
Maria is the seventh hurricane this season in what was expected to be an above average year, with five to nine hurricanes and two to five major storms predicted. But 2017 may end up easily beating that forecast with more than two months to go during the busiest part of the Atlantic season.
Staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.
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