Hurricane Maria closes in on Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico

A “potentially catastrophic” Hurricane Maria closed in on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Tuesday afternoon, after marching through the northeastern Caribbean overnight and leaving scenes of devastation in its wake.

The National Weather Service reported local islands had begun seeing Maria’s outer bands with torrential rainfall and gusting winds midday Tuesday, and forecasters warned of storm surge as high as nine feet above normal tide levels. The nearby Dominican Republic can expect tropical-storm force conditions to reach it as early as Wednesday morning.

The Meteorological Service of the Dominican Republic issued a hurricane warning from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata, and also issued a tropical storm warning west of Puerto Plata to the northern border and Haiti, and west of Cabo Engano to Punta Palenque.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, Maria had maximum sustained winds near 160 mph and was still moving about 10 mph with compact hurricane-force winds about 35 miles out from the eye, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. The Category 5 storm is expected to continue fluctuating in strength as it moves over the northeast Caribbean Sea, and the eyewall is forecast to pass near or over the islands sometime Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Maria made landfall on Dominica’s mountainous terrain Monday night, though its churn through the island only resulted in a slight weakening in intensity, forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said. Guadeloupe, just north of Dominica, was hit hard by driving rain and high winds overnight when Maria’s eye passed near the southwestern tip of the French overseas territory. Rivers overran their banks, trees blocked roads and a dock split in two at a marina.

Although St. Kitts and Nevis escaped relatively unscathed from Irma, by 8 a.m. Tuesday, Maria was again a Category 5 hurricane as it continued on a course near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

A high pressure ridge is steering the storm to the west-northwest, forecasters said, which should continue for the next few days. Once past Puerto Rico, Maria could begin turning to the northwest as the ridge weakens.

Maria arrives just over a week after Irma’s eye crossed St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands with 185 mph winds, narrowly missing Puerto Rico. That Category 5 storm killed three in Puerto Rico, toppled trees and knocked out power to about a million, but spared the island a direct blow.

But nearly 70,000 people remain without power in Puerto Rico, 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.

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.

Maria reached the island of Dominica Monday night, and residents there woke up to yet another scene of devastation Tuesday as the storm left a trail of widespread wreckage. Maria’s Category 5 winds uprooted trees and ripped off rooftops including that of the official residence of the country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, and triggering an avalanche of those torn-away roofs in the city and the countryside.

Skerrit, who described the storm on his official Facebook page as “Rough! Rough! Rough!” was eventually rescued as the violent rains and winds battered his mountainous island paradise.

Shortly before communication went down at 3 a.m. after the eye had passed, Skerrit described Maria’s impact.

“We have lost all what money can buy and replace,” he said in a post. “My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.

“So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” he added.

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The last time a storm unleashed such massive destruction on Dominica was Hurricane David, a deadly Category 4 storm that created massive devastation and loss of lives in the Caribbean region in 1979.

In 2015, Dominica was hit by Tropical Storm Erika, which tore across the island and left at least 20 people dead as it dumped 10 inches of rain. The devastation was so costly that last year the island wasn’t prepared to host a gathering of 15 Caribbean Community leaders, forcing the meeting to be held in Guyana.

Prior to Hurricane Maria’s arrival, Skerrit warned Dominicans not to take the storm lightly and for those living in flood-prone communities to evacuate.

While there have been reports of injuries, it’s unclear whether there are any deaths as a result of the storm. Skerrit said the focus this morning, once the all clear is given, will be to search for any persons who are injured and those trapped in the rubble.

“I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating … indeed, mind boggling,” he said. “My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured. We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds.

“It is too early to speak of the condition of the air and seaports, but I suspect both will be inoperable for a few days. That is why I am eager now to solicit the support of friendly nations and organisations [sic] with helicopter services, for I personally am eager to get up and get around the country to see and determine what’s needed,” he said.

As the hurricane moved upward, St. Kitts and Nevis Foreign Minister Mark Brantley posted a video clip on Twitter of trees blowing in the tiny island of Nevis, birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, creator of the American economic system and one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.

At 5 a.m., he said, St. Kitts and Nevis, which was forced to cancel independence day celebrations today, was being “pummeled by howling winds and torrential rain.”

“We pray for the morning sun and its revelations,” he tweeted.

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 a few 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.