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Hurricane Maria aims for Puerto Rico after 'widespread devastation' on Dominica

A \"potentially catastrophic\" Hurricane Maria is now a Category 5 storm, packing 160 miles per hour winds -- with even higher gusts -- as it nears Dominica and takes aim at the US territory of Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy CNN

By Euan McKirdy, Joe Sterling and Monte Plott, CNN

    (CNN) -- Hurricane Maria, making its first landfall as a Category 5 storm, has blasted Dominica with "widespread devastation," according to the prime minister of the Caribbean island nation.

With the US territory of Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands now in its path, Maria's powerful punch diminished only slightly after it hit Dominica Monday night. The hurricane barreled westward as a Category 4 fury with winds at nearly 155 mph (250 km/h), according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).

"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," the hurricane center said in its 2 a.m. Tuesday update on Maria. The NHC said Maria hit Dominica with winds at top speed of 160 mph.

"Initial reports are of widespread devastation," Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on Facebook. "So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains."

Hurricane Maria is the strongest storm on record to make landfall in Dominica, and it would be the first Category 4 or greater hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years.

Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, has declared a state of emergency ahead of that landfall, which will likely happen Wednesday.

A hurricane warning from the NHC remains in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques.

The regional government of Guadeloupe tweeted early Tuesday to its residents: "Don't go out under any circumstances."

US President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico for federal assistance to augment the territory's storm-response initiatives.

The ferocity of Maria bears striking similarities to Hurricane Andrew, the Category 5 hurricane that hit the Bahamas and Florida in 1992, says CNN meterologist Pedram Javaheri. Both storms are compact, and Maria's wind speed comes close to that of Hurricane Andrew -- 165 mph -- when it hit southern Florida.

Puerto Rico on alert

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 powerful hurricane.

Rosselló ordered evacuations ahead of deteriorating conditions, telling CNN that extensive preparations had been made to mitigate Maria's potential impact.

"We're as ready as we can be," he told CNN's Don Lemon.

"This sort of event is a very dangerous event, high winds ... and a lot of rainfall. And this coming just about two weeks after Irma skirted off the northeast of Puerto Rico.

"We've made preparations... we've focused on really the only thing that matters right now, which is making sure people are safe. We have 500 shelters, (we're) moving people to those shelters and hopefully weathering the storm so we can rebuild Puerto Rico.

Calling its potential impact "catastrophic," Rosselló said the island was expected to experience tropical storm force winds for about two and a half days and sustained high level hurricane winds for "the better part of a day."

"We expect to feel storm winds, tropical storm winds, since Tuesday up until late on Thursday. That's about two-and-a-half days of tropical storm winds, and on Wednesday we will feel the brunt -- all of the island will feel the brunt of sustained category four or five winds, Rosselló 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."

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.

In Salinas, a city on the island's southern coast where the storm is expected to hit hard, CNN saw dozens of people queuing for water and essentials ahead of the hurricane's anticipated impact.

Restauranteur Juan Miguel Gonzalez told CNN he was "worried" about the storm's impact. "Not about material stuff, rather the people," he said.

His staff were working to prepare the waterfront property for Maria's arrival and the 39-year-old said that he would return tomorrow to make sure that it was secure.

The Puerto Rico Convention Center in the capital San Juan to the north, which is still housing Hurricane Irma evacuees from other Caribbean islands, is preparing to accept thousands of residents as the brunt of the storm is felt.

Rapid intensification

Maria went from a tropical storm to a Category 5 -- the highest level on the scale used by meteorologists -- in just 30 hours. Its top winds were at 65 mph at 2 p.m. on Sunday but had exploded to the Category 5 status of 160 mph by 8 p.m. on Monday, according to the NHC.

Trump issued an emergency declaration for the US Virgin Islands.

There are tropical storm warnings in effect for Martinique, Antigua and Barbuda, Saba and St. Eustatius, St. Martin, Anguilla and St. Lucia.

The Dominican Republic government has issued a hurricane watch from Isla Saona to Puerto Plata, and a tropical storm watch west of Puerto Plata to the northern Dominican Republic-Haiti border.

The British Foreign Office said more than 1,300 troops are in the region, on affected islands or nearby locations, ready to help after Maria goes by. One military team has been deployed to the British Virgin Islands.

A British military reconnaissance team is on standby to go to Montserrat and assess needs, the office said. The HMS Ocean is set to arrive in the area at week's end with 60 tons of government supplies.

Another hurricane, Jose, is also churning in the Atlantic and has spawned tropical storm warnings 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.

The-CNN-Wire
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