Hurricane Maria strengthens to Cat 3 storm carving course across northern Caribbean

Hurricane Maria strengthened to a major Category 3 hurricane Monday morning, carving a path across the northern Caribbean that could see some islands battered by a second major storm in about a week’s time.

In their 11 a.m. advisory, National Hurricane Center forecasters said sustained winds have climbed to 120 mph, prompting hurricane warnings across the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Winds could climb to 150 mph, they said, as the storm heads toward Puerto Rico. Over the next 12 hours or so, it’s expected to begin moving through the Leeward Islands still digging our from Hurricane Irma.

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.

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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 11 a.m., Maria was located 60 miles east of Martinique, heading west-northwest at 10 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 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.

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.

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At 11 a.m. Monday, forecasters said Hurricane Maria was expected to strengthen to a major hurricane, with sustained winds as high as 150 mph, as it nears the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

National Hurricane Center

A barge carrying much needed food and emergency supplies from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines arrived Monday in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, sent by the government, farmers and business leaders.

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.

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.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.