Hurricane Maria has intensified and regained its Category 5 hurricane strength, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said on Tuesday.
Maria, which made landfall in Dominica as a Category 5 storm on Monday night, is about 205 miles (325 km) southeast of St. Croix with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 km/h), it said.
The storm plowed through Dominica, an island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing widespread devastation, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a Facebook post.
“I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating … indeed, mind-boggling. My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.
With maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), the storm slammed into the island as a Category 5 hurricane, the NHC said.
“The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said. “The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn-away roofs in the city and the countryside.”
While the intensity of the hurricane may fluctuate over the next day or two, Maria is expected to remain a Category 4 or 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the Miami-based NHC said.
The storm was on track to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea and, by Tuesday night or early on Wednesday, approach the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where millions are still reeling from Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
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 in 1998, 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.