The fourth major Atlantic hurricane of the year, Maria, gathered strength on Monday as it churned through the eastern Caribbean, bearing down on the tiny island nation of Dominica while on a likely collision course with the US territory of Puerto Rico, Reuters reports.
Maria was upgraded to a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as its maximum sustained winds reached 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour), with stronger gusts, the news agency said, citing the US National Hurricane Center (NHC). It is possible that Maria could reach Category 5 status, NHC warned.
The center of the storm located about 45 miles (72 km) east-southeast of Dominica as of 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT, 5 a.m. in Hong Kong) and expected to pass very close to the island later in the evening, on a track that would put it over Puerto Rico by Wednesday, according to NHC forecasts.
Dominica, a heavily forested former British colony and home to 72,000 people, lies in the eastern Caribbean about halfway between the French islands of Guadeloupe, to the north, and Martinique, to the south.
At its current strength, Maria would be the first Category 4 storm to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike the island territory directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm, he said.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, urged island residents in a social media advisory to brace for the storm’s arrival. “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter,” he said.
Puerto Rico narrowly avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Hurricane Irma, which reached a rare Category 5 status and ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record before devastating several smaller islands, including the US Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
Maria is forecast to continue intensifying over the next day or two and it will remain “an extremely dangerous major hurricane”, the NHC said.
Residents of some islands fled in advance of the storm.
US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents not to underestimate the threat from Maria, or its potential to change track. “Just remember this is a live animal,” he said.
The island of St. Croix appeared to be in the path of hurricane-force winds, with nearby St. Thomas and St. John seeing tropical storm-force winds, Mapp said. “Given the current conditions of St. Thomas and St. John, that’s not good,” he added.
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