Hurricane Maria became a Category 4 storm on Monday afternoon as it barreled toward Dominica in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands and took aim for the US territory of Puerto Rico.
“We want to alert the people of Puerto Rico that this is not an event like we’ve ever seen before,” said Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told reporters Monday.
“The eye and the intense inner core is expected to pass near Dominica during the next few hours,” the National Hurricane Center said in its 5 p.m. advisory. “Maria is likely to affect Puerto Rico as an extremely dangerous major hurricane, and a hurricane warning has been issued for that island.”
Maria packed sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kilometers per hour), bringing the chance of life-threatening storm surge, the advisory said, accompanied by “large and destructive waves,” and “hitting the Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.”
A US Air Force Reserve C-130 Hurricane Hunter took off from Curacao and is scheduled to arrive in Maria later on Monday, the hurricane center said. It is “distinctly possible” that aircraft data show a higher intensity, forecasters said.
“Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye,” a very small, perfect inner core of a very intense hurricane, the center said.
Forecasters predict mudslides caused by heavy rains and “life-threatening flash floods across the Leeward Islands, including Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands.”
Dominica is a small island with a population of nearly 74,000 about halfway between Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago, according to the CIA World Factbook. It’s nearly 290 square miles (751 square kilometers) and “slightly more than four times the size of Washington DC.”
“The Dominican economy has been dependent on agriculture — primarily bananas — in years past, but increasingly has been driven by tourism as the government seeks to promote Dominica as an ‘ecotourism’ destination,” the factbook said.
Hours before Maria’s expected landfall on Dominica — and just over week after the island was brushed by Irma — Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged residents to take any belongings that could become dangerous projectiles indoors.