BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) – A rapidly strengthening Hurricane Maria barreled towards the eastern Caribbean islands with 125 mile-per-hour (200 kph) winds on Monday, threatening the region with its second major storm this month.
Officials from French-controlled Martinique to the U.S. Virgin Islands warned residents to prepare for the storm, now ranked by U.S. forecasters as a major hurricane, at Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
Maria was located about 45 miles (70 km) east of Martinique, headed west-northwest on a track that would put it over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by Wednesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT) advisory. The hurricane was expected to continue to strengthen during the coming two days, the center said.
Residents of some islands fled ahead of the storm.
Beth Tamplin Jones, 45, rode out Hurricane Irma earlier this month in the pantry of a friend’s house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“It was so intense,” said Jones, who evacuated from St. John to Puerto Rico last week and then got a flight to Atlanta, where she planned to remain until Maria passed.
“We’re in hurricane alley, so we’ve had other storms, but nothing like this,” Jones said, referring to Irma, which was one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded and which killed more than 80 people on Caribbean islands and the U.S. mainland. “I don’t think anybody’s ever been hit by a storm like that. To see another one coming is just so discouraging.”
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents not to underestimate the threat from Maria, or its potential to change track. “Just remember this is a live animal,” he said.
The island of St. Croix looked to face hurricane force winds with nearby St. Thomas and St. John seeing tropical storm force winds, Mapp said, adding, “given the current conditions of St. Thomas and St. John, that’s not good.”
Maria was expected to whip up storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 9 feet (2.7 m), the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 cm) of rain, it said.
Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were in…