The eye of the hurricane is expected to pass near Dominica and the adjacent Leeward Islands during the next few hours and approach Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Tuesday night, according to the latest public advisory issued at 12:00am GMT.
A Hurricane Warning has been issued for Puerto Rico, Culebra, Vieques, the British Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Dominica and other islands in the area. Maria is likely to affect Puerto Rico as “an extremely dangerous major hurricane,”according to the NHC.
An Air Force Reserve hurricane hunter aircraft flew in and around the storm and recorded maximum wind speeds of 160 miles per hour with even higher gusts.
The NHC predicts dangerous storm surges will accompany “large and destructive waves,” which will cause the water levels to raise as much as six to nine feet above normal tide levels in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Certain areas of the US and British Virgin Islands and the Leeward Islands are also predicted to receive 10 to 15 inches of rainfall, with 12 to 18 inches predicted in Puerto Rico, according to the NHC.
“Rainfall on all of these islands could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” the NHC warned.
The eyewall of Hurricane Maria moved onshore over Dominica with sustained winds of 160 miles per hours, according to an update from the NHC issued at 1:00am GMT.
Prime Minister of Dominica Roosevelt Skerrit described the winds as “merciless” in a Facebook post.
At a news conference, Rossello said Hurricane Maria could become a Category 5 by the time it reaches Puerto Rico. He added that the island will feel tropical storm winds from Tuesday to Thursday, with the brunt of sustained Category 4 or 5 winds on Wednesday.
Rossello urged anyone in a flood-prone area to move to a shelter, explaining that some houses are “not built to withstand 130, 140, 150 mile per hour winds.”
“We want to alert the people of Puerto Rico that this is not an event like we’ve ever seen before,” Rossello said. “This is an event that will be damaging to the infrastructure, that will be catastrophic and our main focus, our only focus right now should be to make sure we save lives.”
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Update: The National Hurricane Center reports that Hurricane Maria has just strengthened to a "potentially catastrophic" Category-5 Storm with winds expected over 160mph.
Hurricane conditions should begin to affect parts of the Leeward Islands later Monday and Monday night, potentially causing a storm surge that raises water levels by four to six feet near Maria's center. The storm was predicted to bring 6 to 12 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
Meanwhile the National Hurricane Center reports that Hurricane Jose - one of three active storms in the Atlantic - has begun to weaken as it moves northward past the east coast of the US. While the storm appears to be too far away from the coastline to threaten a landfall, it could create “potentially dangerous surf and rip currents…along the east coast of the US” from Delaware to Cape Cod. Early Monday, Jose was centered about 280 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north at 9 mph. It had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph.
Maria became a hurricane as it barreled toward the storm-battered eastern Caribbean with 75 mile (120 kilometer) per hour winds, the US National Hurricane Center said Sunday, on a path similar to that of mega storm Irma earlier in the month.
Storm warnings and watches went up in many of the Caribbean islands still reeling from Irma's destructive passage.
As of 2100 GMT, Maria was a Category One hurricane, the lowest on the five point Saffir-Simpson scale, located 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Barbados while bearing west-northwest at 15 miles (24 kilometers) an hour, the NHC said.
"On the forecast track, the center of Maria will move across the Leeward Islands Monday night and then over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea on Tuesday," it said.
Hurricane warnings were triggered for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Martinique.
Less urgent 'watches' were issued for the US and British Virgin Islands where at least nine people were killed during Irma; French-Dutch island St Martin where 15 people died; Saba and St Eustatius; St Barthelemy and Anguilla.