Hurricane Maria bears down on St. Croix, Puerto Rico after trashing Dominica

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria, the second maximum-strength storm to hit the Caribbean this month, killed at least one person in Guadeloupe and bore down menacingly on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday after devastating the tiny island nation of Dominica.

Maria, a rare Category 5 storm at the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, churned in the eastern Caribbean about 60 miles (190 km) southeast of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. forecasters said.

Maria was carrying maximum sustained winds of 175 miles per hour (280 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. The “potentially catastrophic” storm was expected to pass near or over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday night and over Puerto Rico on Wednesday.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward.

The storm plowed 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, noting 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.

Video footage released by the prefecture showed tree-bending winds whipping ferociously through deserted streets and shaking lamp posts when the storm first hit.

The region was punched just days ago by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

Maria was expected to remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane as it moved near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, the NHC said.

It was expected to pass near St. Croix, the part of the…

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