With recovery efforts in hard-hit Caribbean islands still in a fragile state after Hurricane Irma, the region prepared for another powerful hurricane that began lashing Dominica, the southernmost of the Leeward Islands, Monday evening and is expected to reach Puerto Rico later in the week.
A storm surge and destructive waves were expected to raise water levels 6 to 9 feet above normal tides, causing widespread flooding as Hurricane Maria moved across the Leeward Islands Monday and early Tuesday.
In its 8 p.m. Monday advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Maria had strengthened to a Category 5 hurricane with highest sustained winds of 160 mph and was moving west northwest at 9 mph. The hurricane was expected to hit the Leewards overnight, swirl over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Tuesday and threaten Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Tuesday night and Wednesday.
The Antigua Meteorological Service tweeted that “Sadly, #Maria has started to make landfall on #Dominica.” Radar images showed landfall on the mountainous islands came at 8:50 p.m., it said. Hurricane force winds extended outward from Maria’s center for up to 25 miles.
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“Things are rapidly deteriorating,” said Garvin Richards, a Dominica resident reached by phone just before 8 p.m. “For the past 15-20 minutes it’s been a steady rain, and sustained, steady wind.” Fallen trees were already blocking roadways Monday afternoon.
Port San Juan was closed to all inbound commercial traffic Monday and the port was expected to close down entirely at 8 a.m. Tuesday. “This storm promises to be catastrophic for our island. All of Puerto Rico will experience hurricane force winds,” said Ernesto Morales, who is with the U.S. National Weather Service in San Juan.
St. Kitts and Nevis Foreign Affairs Minister Mark Brantley said it was time for prayers as Hurricane Maria took aim at the tiny islands north of Dominica. “We are busy preparing for Hurricane Maria and praying for God’s mercy,” he said on Twitter.
At 8 p.m., hurricane warnings were in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, St. Lucia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Saba and St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy and Anguilla were under hurricane watches, which means hurricane conditions are possible with winds strong enough to make outside preparations difficult within 48 hours.
Two weeks ago, many of the same islands were preparing for the arrival of another monster storm, Irma — the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history. Monday, even as they made preparations for a new onslaught, the hard-hit islands were receiving relief supplies. Some deliveries were moved up so they would be in place as soon as Maria passed.
Although St. Kitts and Nevis and Dominica emerged relatively unscathed from Hurricane Irma, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, which are also in Maria’s cross-hairs, were among the most devastated islands.
Taking no chances, Barry University evacuated its St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, campus Monday afternoon and flew 72 people to Miami. Shelters for the evacuees have been set up at Barry’s Miami Shores campus.
The amphibious ship USS Kearsarge, which had been the base of operations for Irma relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands, evacuated about 160 U.S. forces who had been sent to assist with Irma recovery. It “sailed out of the way of the storm,” according to a Navy official, but was well stocked to handle Maria’s aftermath. “The response will be quick on the heels if needed,” the official said.
As Maria barreled toward the Leewards, foreign governments from around the world at the United Nations General Assembly pledged their support and on Sunday issued $10 million in emergency funds for the region.