Hurricane Maria pummels small Caribbean island of Dominica as Category 5 storm

PONCE, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria, the second Category 5 storm to hit the Caribbean this month, plowed into the small island nation of Dominica on Monday with roof-ripping fury on a collision course with the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico later this week.

Hurricane Maria was upgraded Monday evening to the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale when its maximum sustained winds reached 160 miles per hour (215 km per hour), with higher gusts, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) reported.

Less than 90 minutes later, the center of the storm, described by the NHC as “potentially catastrophic,” passed almost directly over Dominica, on a track that would put it over Puerto Rico by Wednesday, according to the agency’s latest bulletins.

There was no immediate word on the fate of Dominica, a former British colony home to 72,000 people that lies in the eastern Caribbean about halfway between the French islands of Guadeloupe, to the north, and Martinique, to the south.

But Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, in a Facebook post around the time Maria made landfall, said the storm has blown the roof off his home, adding, “I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.” He then added, “I have been rescued.”

Millions more in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, still reeling from Hurricane Irma earlier this month, have another day or two to prepare for the storm, forecasters said.

If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a Category 4 storm swept the U.S. island territory in 1932, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm, he said.

The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, urged island residents on Twitter to brace for the storm’s arrival, saying, “It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter.”

Puerto Rico narrowly avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Hurricane Irma, which reached a rare Category 5 status and ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record before devastating several smaller islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.

PRAYERS AND MATTRESSES

A woman covers herself with a raincoat while looking out at the ocean as Hurricane Maria approaches in Petit-Bourg, Guadeloupe island, France, September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

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