Hurricane Maria, called “potentially catastrophic” by the National Hurricane Center, has been raised to Category 5 as it heads for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
On Tuesday, Maria was moving west by northwest at nine miles an hour and was packing maximum sustained winds of 160 miles an hour. It weakened briefly overnight to Category 4 before regaining strength.
Maria left a path of destruction on the island of Dominica as a Category 5 storm and then blasted Guadeloupe with powerful winds early Tuesday.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Puerto Rico, its satellite islands of Culebra and Vieques, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Maria was expected to hit the Virgin Islands Tuesday afternoon and Puerto Rico late Tuesday into early Wednesday, the center said.
“Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous category 4 or 5 hurricane while it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” said the National Hurricane Center. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 30 miles from the center, and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 125 miles.
The center said a dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by up to 11 feet above normal in the hurricane warning area near where the center of Maria moves across the Leeward Islands and the British Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the level could rise to as much as nine feet.
The National Hurricane Center said Maria is expected to produce rain accumulations up to 25 inches in isolated areas of Puerto Rico and up to 20 inches in isolated areas of the central and southern Leeward Islands and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Because Maria is likely to sustain hurricane-force winds for as long as 24 hours, this hurricane may be more destructive than Hurricane Irma, which killed at least 70 people across the Caribbean and the southeastern United States several weeks ago.
The National Hurricane Center added that conditions could leave parts of the U.S. territories “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
This is just the second time two Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the same hurricane season. The last time that happened in the Atlantic basin was 2007, when Dean and Felix killed 174 people in Mexico and Central America.
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