Hurricane Maria swells to Category 4, keeps intensifying hours before landfall

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Hurricane Maria is forecast to rapidly strengthen over the next two days as it takes aim at Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma just days ago. - CNN

Hurricane Maria’s brute force doubled in strength as it barreled toward Caribbean islands already devastated by Hurricane Irma.

On Monday afternoon, Maria was hurling winds of 130 mph as it closed in on the Caribbean and took aim at Puerto Rico.

That’s nearly twice the hurricane’s strength from just 24 hours earlier — and Maria is expected to keep growing before slamming into the Leeward Islands this evening.

As of 2 p.m. ET, Maria was centered about 45 miles (70 kilometers) east-northeast of Martinique and 70 miles east-southeast of Dominica, the National Hurricane Center said. The mammoth storm was moving west-northwest at 10 mph.

Its first landfall is expected around 8 p.m. ET in the northeast Caribbean’s Leeward Islands — specifically Dominica and Martinique.

And for the first time in 85 years, Puerto Rico is expected to suffer a direct landfall from a Category 4 hurricane. Puerto Rico’s governor has declared a state of emergency ahead of that landfall, which will likely happen Wednesday.

“It’s time to wrap up your preparations now, Puerto Rico,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

Track the storm here

Bracing for impact

Hours before Maria’s expected landfall on Dominica — and just over week after the island was brushed by Irma — Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged residents to take any belongings that could become dangerous projectiles indoors.

“The next few hours should be placed on cleaning up around the house and on your properties rather than stockpiling weeks of foods and other supplies,” Skerrit said in a televised speech.

“This is not a system that will linger very long. Therefore, the goal must not be on stockpiling supplies but on mitigating damage caused by flying objects.”

In Antigua, another island battered by Irma, yacht skipper Kevin Joseph took extra precautions ahead of Maria.

“Our company, we have lost in excess of a hundred boats so far by Hurricane Irma, and for that reason we’re not taking any chances,” Joseph said.

“We’re gonna take the remainder of the fleet that’s here in Antigua, and we’re gonna take them south to the island of Martinique where they’re safe for shelter so that we can ride out the impending storm.”

Scrambling in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico sheltered many of the evacuees who fled Hurricane Irma’s wrath in other Caribbean islands. Now those evacuees and native Puerto Ricans are bracing for another catastrophic hurricane.

Issa Alexander barely survived Irma when that hurricane shredded his family’s home in the British Virgin Islands. He evacuated to San Juan, Puerto Rico — only to face the prospect of more devastation.

“I’m hoping that Maria doesn’t come, but I don’t know,” said Alexander, 22.

He’s terrified for relatives still in the British Virgin Islands — especially because the lines of communication are still down.

“I don’t even know if they know that it (Maria) is coming,” Alexander said. “I can only hope that the same spirit that everybody has — the same God that helped everybody to survive is still looking over them.”

Puerto Rico housing authorities said there are 450 shelters able to take in 62,714 evacuees, and up to 125,428 in an emergency situation. But there are six fewer shelters available post-Irma, since some schools still have no electricity.

What to expect from Maria

Many of the Leeward Islands are now under hurricane warnings, including Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. The US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Martinique and St. Lucia are also under warnings.

Up to 12 inches of rain — and even 20 inches in some areas — are expected to deluge the central and southern Leeward Islands through Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said.

“Rainfall amounts of 6 to 12 inches with isolated maximum amounts of 25 inches are expected across Puerto Rico,” the NHC said. “Rainfall on all of these islands could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” it said.

‘More dangerous than Hugo and Georges’

Puerto Rico’s governor ordered evacuations Monday ahead of Tuesday’s deteriorating conditions.

“Our call is for people to evacuate areas that are prone to floods and landslides, in addition to vulnerable structures,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said.

“It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach 50 miles per hour.”

Rosselló added that Maria’s size means all of Puerto Rico will experience hurricane conditions.

If Maria strikes the island as forecast, it will be “more dangerous than Hugo and Georges,” he said.

Hurricane Hugo killed five people in Puerto Rico in 1989, and Hurricane Georges caused more than $1.7 billion in damage to the island in 1998.

Hurricane Jose

Another hurricane, Jose, is also churning in the Atlantic and has spawned a tropical storm warning for part of the US East Coast.

While forecasters don’t anticipate Jose making landfall in the US, it’s still expected to cause “dangerous surf and rip currents” along the East Coast in the next few days, the hurricane center said.

Midday on Monday, Hurricane Jose was about 265 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north at 9 mph.

The tropical storm warning is in effect for parts of southern New England, from Watch Hill, Rhode Island, to Hull, Massachusetts, the NHC said.

“Jose is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 3 to 5 inches over eastern Long Island, southeast Connecticut, southern Rhode Island, and southeast Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, through Wednesday,” the hurricane center said.

Jose is expected to weaken in the next few days, but will likely remain a hurricane through Tuesday.

By Holly Yan, CNN

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