This story will be updated as needed.
Less than two weeks after a ferocious Hurricane Irma brushed its north coast, Puerto Rico could face far worse from a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Maria.
Monday evening, Maria strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane, expected to cross over or near the island late Tuesday or early Wednesday after carving a path through the Leeward Islands. National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm had developed a “dreaded pinhole eye,” signaling it could grow even stronger. A hurricane hunter plane was scheduled to fly into the storm about 11:30 p.m. Monday and could find stronger winds, they said.
Maria arrives about two weeks after Irma’s eye crossed St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands with 185 mph winds, narrowly missing Puerto Rico. The Category 5 storm killed three, toppled trees and knocked out power to about a million, but spared the island a direct blow.
Never miss a local story.
Earlier in the day, governments in Maria’s path urged residents to hurry preparations as time ran out.
“This is not a time for heroism,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a morning press conference just hours before the center of Maria began nearing the island at 6 p.m.
In St. Kitts and Nevis, Foreign Affairs Minister Mark Brantely tweeted that the islands are “praying for God’s mercy.”
A high pressure ridge is steering the storm to the west-northwest, forecasters said, which should continue for the next three days. After crossing the Leeward Islands tonight, it’s expected to near the Virgin Islands and pass near or over Puerto Rico in 48 hours. Once past Puerto Rico, Maria could begin turning to the northwest as the ridge weakens.
Later in the week, the storm could near 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 in Puerto Rico late Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service’s San Juan office said. Hurricane force winds could last more than a day.
If Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico, it would be the first hit to the islands since Hurricane Georges in 1998, said Colorado State meteorologist Phil Klotzbach said. That storm went on to make landfall in Key West.
It’s not yet clear what threat Maria poses to Florida or the U.S. coast, although a landfall looks unlikely. The high pressure ridge should weaken in about five days, allowing the storm to turn to the north-northwest and take it away from Florida. But how weak that ridge becomes depends in part on Hurricane Jose, off the coast of the Carolinas, and whether the ridge has time to rebuild.
Models take the storm offshore up the U.S. east coast. But forecasts so far in advance can be more than 200 miles miles off.
Unlike Irma, Maria is a compact storm, with hurricane winds extending just 25 miles from the center — Irma’s reached 80 miles — and tropical storm force winds reaching 125 miles. Maria formed much farther 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. Monday evening, forecasters said there’s a chance Maria could start replacing its eyewall and expand hurricane-force winds, but it seems unlikely it could reach Irma’s size.
Heavy rain, from 10 to 12 inches in the central and southern Leeward Islands, and 10 to 15 inches in Virgin Islands, could fall through Thursday on the islands. Amounts as high as 20 inches are possible in some places. Puerto Rico could get between 12 and 18 inches, raising the risk of dangerous flash floods and mudslides. Some locations could see up to 25 inches.
In Puerto Rico, nearly 70,000 people remain without power and 200 are still in shelters. Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that more widespread outages are likely with Maria as the government prepared to reopen about 450 shelters capable of taking in up to 125,000 people. Classes were canceled and government employees were told to work only a half-day.
In Guadeloupe, officials warned the island could be hit with heavy flooding while in nearby Martinique, authorities ordered people to remain indoors and be ready for power outages and water shortages.
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. Forecasters are also keeping an eye on Hurricane Jose, which began generating dangerous waves and rip currents along the East Coast on Monday, and Lee, which slowed from a tropical storm to a depression and is expected to fall apart Monday night or Tuesday.
Staff writer Jacqueline Charles and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Jenny Staletovich @jenstaletovich