Maria’s outer bands reach Puerto Rico. Landfall as Cat 5 expected by morning

The first outer bands of “potentially catastrophic” Hurricane Maria began sweeping across Puerto Rico late Tuesday afternoon as the island braced for what could be the strongest storm to hit there in almost a century.

Maria, at 5 p.m., remained an intense and dangerous Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds at 165 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm had already left Dominica in ruins and was on a course that also will rake St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands overnight — the second direct hit from a Cat 5 hurricane for the American territory in just over a week. Hurricane Irma left heavy damage and thousands homeless in both St. Thomas and St. John.

Though Puerto Rico, home to nearly 3.5 million people, only got a glancing blow from Irma, nearly 70,000 still remain without power. And Maria promised to make things much worse. The latest track shifted the track slightly west, possibly sparing the heavily populated capital of San Juan the compact storm’s strongest core — but a wobble this way or that could change that and either way, the city was set to endure the storm’s stronger “dirty” side.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that more widespread outages are likely and the government was reopening 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.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Rossello warned in a national address on Monday.

Hurricane Maria’s hurricane winds were expected to reach San Juan late Tuesday and then build continually toward an expected landfall, perhaps on the island’s southern shoreline near Ponce sometime in the early morning hours Wednesday. After that, the storm could threaten the Turks and Caicos, which also were heavily damaged by Irma. They were placed under a hurricane watch Tuesday afternoon.

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, if the predicted track holds true, would pose no threat to Florida but it was too soon to rule out potential impacts for the the rest of the U.S. coast.

The National Weather Service Office in San Juan was predicting sustained winds of 90 to 125 mph across much of the island and gusts up to 175 mph – easily capable of stripping roofs and crumbling weaker older buildings. A storm surge of up to 9 feet could been seen in some areas along with potentially deadly flooding from a predicted 12 to 18 inches of rain, with some spots deluged with up to 25 inches potentially.

Maria, unlike Irma, was a relatively small storm – with hurricane-force winds extending about 35 miles out from the eye, National Hurricane Center forecasters said. But its core was nearly as power as Irma, which killed at least 42 people and left billions in losses in its march across the Caribbean and up the Florida peninsula.

Maria made landfall on Dominica’s mountainous terrain Monday night, though its churn through the island only resulted in a slight weakening in intensity before it regained strength. 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.

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, if the predicted track holds true, would pose no threat to Florida but it was too soon to rule out potential impacts for the the rest of the U.S. coast.

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.

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 also would be the strongest storm to hit the island since 1928 when a storm known as the San Felipe Segundo hurricane killed an estimated 2,000 people there, That same storm later hit Florida, destroying a crude early dike around Lake Okeechobee and killing nearly 2,500 people in Florida. That storm was the inspiration for Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

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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.