MIAMI – Hurricane Maria strengthened to a Category 4 storm on Monday and remained on track for the Leeward Islands and the Caribbean Sea, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
Maximum sustained winds have increased to 215 kph (130 mph), making Maria “an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” the NHC said in a public advisory released at 2100 GMT.
Maria is about 70 kilometers (45 miles) east-southeast of Dominica and 55 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Martinique, moving toward the west-northwest at 15 kph (9 mph).
Forecasters expect the hurricane’s eye and inner core to pass near Dominica later Monday.
“On the forecast track, the center of Maria will move across the Leeward Islands late today and tonight, over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea Tuesday and Tuesday night, and approach Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Wednesday,” the NHC said.
The 2100 GMT advisory raised the alert level for Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra from hurricane watch to hurricane warning.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, St. Lucia, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy and Anguilla are under a hurricane watch.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico on Monday ahead of the possible arrival of Hurricane Maria.
Rossello said he was taking the measure to speed up preparations for the hurricane, which could be “more devastating than Irma.”
If Hurricane Maria reaches Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, it would be the most powerful hurricane to strike the island in nearly a century, National Weather Service meteorologist Gabriel Lojero told EFE.
The last Category 4 hurricane to hit the US territory was the Hurricane of 1932, known on the island as the “San Ciprian” hurricane, which made landfall in September of that year.
On Sept. 13, 1928, a Category 5 hurricane, known as the “San Felipe II” hurricane, crossed Puerto Rico from southeast to northwest, packing winds of 258 kph (160 mph) and making it the most powerful storm on record to ever hit the island, Lojero said.
Puerto Rico has been hammered by other powerful hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989, Hortensia in 1996 and Georges in 1998, over the years.
The island is still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which did not make landfall but damaged the electric grid and other infrastructure.
About 4 percent of electric utility customers in Puerto Rico are still without power two weeks after Irma passed through the Caribbean.