SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria, the second maximum-strength storm to hit the Caribbean this month, battered the US Virgin Island of St. Croix on Wednesday and headed toward Puerto Rico, set to be the strongest storm to hit the island in about 90 years.
Maria, packing catastrophic winds and causing surges, earlier killed at least one person in the French territory of Guadeloupe and devastated the tiny island nation of Dominica.
The storm hit just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and the Florida Keys.
Maria, a rare Category 5 storm at the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, was downgraded to a Category 4 storm as it neared Puerto Rico, where it was set to make landfall in the morning. It was packing maximum sustained winds near 250km/h and was 80 km southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as of 5am. EDT (0900 GMT), the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC).
A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the US. Virgin Island’s 103,000 residents, as a Category 5 storm and its outer eyeball lashed the island with sustained winds of about 145km/h, the NHC said.
The Centre has hurricane warnings and watches out for the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.
Many US Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned people on the islands that their lives were at risk.
“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” he said.
Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.
Maria will cross Puerto Rico later on Wednesday and pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.
It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.
Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the US and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the US mainland.
Maria was set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.
Maria will probably be a Category 4 when it makes landfall in Puerto Rico, the NHC said. A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, it added.
In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5cm) of rain on parts of the island and bring storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, of up to 9 feet (2.74m), the NHC said.
The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.
“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.
“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.
Puerto Rico, a US territory of about 3.4 million people, avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 per cent of the island, and killed at least three people.
Maria promises to be worse.
“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.” Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in US history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.
More than 150 flights were cancelled at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the main international airport in Puerto Rico, on Wednesday morning, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.
The storm ploughed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.
“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said on Facebook, saying that his own residence had been hit, too. He said he was now focused on rescuing people who might be trapped and getting medical help for the injured.
North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.
Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.