Hurricane Maria could be a Cat 4 storm by the time it reaches the northern Caribbean

Hurricane Maria gains strength

Hurricane Maria, which continued to strengthen Sunday, maintained a west-northwest track Sunday night toward the already storm-battered Leeward Islands.
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Hurricane Maria, which continued to strengthen Sunday, maintained a west-northwest track Sunday night toward the already storm-battered Leeward Islands.

Hurricane Maria is teeing up to become another major hurricane, possibly reaching Category 4 intensity, as it crosses the northern Caribbean this week.

Early Monday, National Hurricane Center 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. As of 8 a.m., sustained winds had reached 110 mph.

A hurricane hunter plane sent to investigate the storm early Monday also reported that the storm was on track to become a major hurricane later today.

As it crosses the Leeward Islands later Monday through the night, Maria is expected to gather steam. Sustained winds could reach 120 mph by Tuesday and 130 mph in 36 hours.

By the time it reaches the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico mid week, Maria could become another brutal hurricane with sustained winds topping 140 mph, forecasters said. 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.

maria arrival 0918 5 am
National Hurricane Center

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.

U.S. models take the storm more offshore. The European forecast, which reliably predicted Irma, moves it further west. But forecasts so far in advance, as Irma proved, can be hundreds of miles off.

At 8 a.m., Maria was located 85 miles east of Martinique, heading west-northwest at 12 mph.

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 105 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.

maria monday 5am closeup 0918
National Hurricane Center

Warnings and watches that began across the islands Sunday continued to spread. Hurricane warnings — meaning conditions may be felt in 36 hours — have been issued for St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Martinique. St. Maarten Antigua, Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Lucia are under tropical storm warnings.

On Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit warned residents that just because the island dodged Irma residents should not take Maria’s threat lightly.

"It is not because the last one skipped us that we should believe this one will skip us,” he said.

Schools and non-essential government businesses were closed Monday and shelters opened. The government also urged private businesses to close.

In 2015, Dominica was battered by a deadly Tropical Storm Erika, which triggered flooding and landslides. At least 20 people died.

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.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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