Hurricane Maria, the second maximum-strength storm to hit the Caribbean this month, killed at least one person in Guadeloupe and menacingly neared 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 45km southeast of St Croix in the US Virgin Islands with maximum sustained winds of 280kmph, the US National Hurricane Centre said.
Maria, a "potentially catastrophic" storm, was expected to bring lashing winds, torrential rains and storm surges that will cause flooding when the eye of the storm passes near St Croix on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, the NHC said.
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 US 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 US mainland.
St Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma on September 6, is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire US Virgin Islands' population.
Maria will cross Puerto Rico on Wednesday and pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.
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.
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.
Search for safety
US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that police and military troops would be pulled off the streets before the storm's arrival, meaning rescue would be unavailable to anyone out in the winds.
"If you've identified a spot, a closet, a corner on the inside of your home and you have some breach in your roof, one of the things you can do is take a mattress or something and have it as a barrier to make sure that you’re safe," he told residents in an afternoon broadcast.
Many US Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. Mapp urged islanders to focus on saving themselves.
"You lose your life the moment you start thinking about how to save a few bucks to stop something from crashing or burning or falling apart," he said. "The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it."
US airlines said on Tuesday they would cap one-way fares at $99 to $384 to aid evacuations.
Maria was predicted to be the worst storm to hit St Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.
Hector Cintron, who works at a telephone company on St Thomas, said he had spent the past couple of days preparing generators, securing his belongings and clearing debris as he and his neighbours prepared for a repeat of Irma.
"There's a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety. It's off the charts," he said. "The community is coming together and helping people out. That’s the good thing."
"Time to act"
In Puerto Rico, a US island territory with about 3.4 million inhabitants, Governor Ricardo Rossello urged residents to go to official shelters. "It's time to act and look for a safe place if you live in flood-prone areas or in wooden or vulnerable structures," he said.
Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma two weeks ago as that storm skirted north, although there was damage.
In the Miramar neighbourhood of Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan, one resident said he was ready for the storm.
"I am prepared. I have water, I have cash, I boarded up my windows, I have gas. That’s it," Gerry Garraton said, smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk near his home.
Garraton, 58, planned to be alone in his apartment in Miramar during the storm, and said he could stay there a few days, if needed.
Shelters in Puerto Rico have capacity for nearly 70,000 people, but the territory's housing secretary, Fernando Gil, said he was concerned that only 299 people had taken refuge in official centres as of Tuesday morning.
Mary Luz, 43, and her daughter Summer Torres Varela, 23, who has epilepsy, went to the medical shelter at Puerto Rico Convention Center in Isla Grande, near old San Juan. Torres Varela was vacationing in St Thomas during Irma and experienced three seizures, Luz said.
Maria is the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane - defined as Category 3 or higher - following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.