Category 5 Hurricane Maria powers up for another blow to the Caribbean
Maria blew up from a tropical storm into a major Category 5 hurricane in less than 24 hours on Monday, bearing down on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands that are still bailing out from Hurricane Irma.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Puerto Rico, its satellite islands of Culebra and Vieques, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. At 7:45 p.m. ET, Maria was producing maximum sustained winds of 160 mph as it moved within 25 miles of Dominica, an island of 72,000 people in the Lesser Antilles.
Maria was expected to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands by Tuesday afternoon and Puerto Rico late Tuesday into early Wednesday, the hurricane center said. With conditions appearing favorable for "additional rapid strengthening for the next 24 hours and possibly longer," the agency said.
President Donald Trump on Monday declared states of emergency in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where Gov. Kenneth Mapp suspended all Irma recovery efforts to shift the focus to preparing for Maria. The Coast Guard said it was moving personnel, cutters and aircraft in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to protect them from Maria and to position them for quick search-and-rescue missions.
The French government declared a red cyclone alert Monday for of Martinique, telling residents to seek shelter and stay put. All flights at Pointe-à-Pitre airport were suspended through Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, it said.
The British government, meanwhile, advised against all travel to the British Virgin Islands, saying it was extending the deployment of more than 1,300 military personnel already in the region to help with recovery from Irma.
"Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye," the National Hurricane Center said late Monday afternoon — a sure sign of a particularly powerful storm.
Orelon Sidney, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, said: "It's got almost perfect conditions — low [wind] shear, warm temperatures and moisture."
It's too early to predict whether or how strongly the U.S. mainland could be affected because of shifting winds and weakening from interference as Maria passes over the string of islands, forecasters said. But, "overall, it's going to be a very strong storm, we think, going through Saturday and Sunday," Sidney said.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned that Maria could bring more rain, wind and water than Irma, which killed three people there.
"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 said Monday.
In Condado, just east of historic old San Juan, Sonia Yanguas, 76, was appealing to the Almighty for help.
"We're praying to God that it will weaken out at sea," said Yanguas, who lives in a ninth-floor apartment by the sea, in phone interview with NBC News. "I've already made the essential purchases, especially water. I have my equipment, I have a radio and batteries, all the things that are so important to making sure you don't end up without a way to communicate."
But she's not sticking around for Maria. She's heading inland to the city of Miramar.
"I'm going to prepare my apartment right now. and then I'm going to a hotel," Yanguas said. "I’m going with my two sons and four grandchildren."
Irma killed four people and did "apocalyptic" damage in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Will Tuttle, who flew down from Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, to the island of St. John help his mother rebuild after Irma, said they were boarding everything up again in preparation for Maria.
"We covered the windows with plywood and are now putting up more plywood to reinforce them," Tuttle said. "We'll throw everything from outside into the pool — lawn chairs, chaises. It sinks. It's safe. It doesn't go anywhere."
On St. Thomas, Omari Williams said everybody was heeding the call to get out of their houses.
"People here are trying to get safe," he said. "Officials are encouraging more people to come to public shelters especially if their home is already compromised."