Recovery efforts in the Caribbean now take a back seat to preparation for a new hurricane

With recovery efforts in hard-hit Caribbean islands still in a fragile state, the region began preparing for another powerful hurricane that could begin lashing the Leeward Islands as early as late Monday afternoon.

In its 11 a.m. advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Maria was moving at about 10 mph per hour and could reach the Leeward Islands by late Monday afternoon or evening. Winds could climb to 150 mph, they said, as the storm heads toward Puerto Rico.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, St. Lucia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.

Although St. Kitts and Nevis and Dominica emerged relatively unscathed from Hurricane Irma, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, which are also in Maria’s crosshairs were among the most devastated islands.

Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged residents to take preparations for Maria seriously: “We should not take this storm lightly,” he said. “It is not because the last one skipped us that we should believe this one will skip us.We have to treat every storm with the same level of preparation and preparedness.”

Schools and all non-essential government businesses were closed Monday and shelters were opened.

If there is one slight reason for optimism as Maria approaches it is that for the past week, residents and tourists have been evacuated from islands that have been stripped of electricity, running water and food in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ships became rescue vessels last week, carrying Irma victims and tourists to safety.

Residents of St. Martin also have been scrambling to get off the island, which is shared by the Dutch and the French.

The twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda was walloped unequally by Irma. Barbuda is so devastated that the decision was made to evacuate everyone who remained after Irma’s passage. Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that 95 percent of properties on the island were a loss.

Even as Hurricane Maria churned toward the islands, a 1,800-ton barge offloaded food and emergency supplies in the British Virgin Islands. The relief came from the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as farmers and business leaders.

But the need to prepare for a hurricane packing maximum sustained winds of 105 mph and a potential storm surge of six to nine feet above normal tide levels is putting relief efforts on hold.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.