Fresh off severe damage from Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico is bracing for another major storm: Hurricane Maria.
Maria, a Category 5 storm as of Tuesday morning, wreaked havoc on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica on Monday. The latest in a series of powerful hurricanes, Maria stands to grow even stronger, meteorologists caution.
On Sunday morning, Maria was only a tropical storm. But winds speeds increased by 90 miles over the next day, and topped out around 160 miles per hour just hours before the storm passed over Dominica on Monday, leaving “mind-boggling” damage in its wake, as Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said.
“Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains,” Skerrit wrote in a statement early Tuesday morning. “So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with.”
The island nation is just beginning to assess the damages, while other islands in Maria’s path brace for impact, said Michael Bell, an associate professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University.
“We’re still waiting to hear about the damages there, but unfortunately it took a very direct hit,” Bell told The Daily Beast. “It’s heading now toward St. Croix and Puerto Rico, so they can expect conditions to deteriorate pretty quickly in the next day or so.”
Bell, who co-authors the Tropical Meteorology Project's seasonal hurricane forecasts, said Maria was still small, but that it could intensify quickly.
“Maria is actually very compact compared to Irma when it approached Florida,” Bell said. “Irma started out as a very small, compact storm as well, but these storms have a tendency to grow in size as they move across the Atlantic.”
One grim sign is right at the center of the storm, where meteorologists have observed what they describe as a “pinhole eye” in Maria.
“A pinhole eye is a very tiny eye,” Bell said. “At this time the pinhole eye means there’s a very clear spot right in the middle where we have sinking motion. That’s indicative often of storms that have undergone rapid intensification. The small storms sometimes can intensify more rapidly than the larger storms.”
The storm is now on track to hit Puerto Rico as early as Tuesday night, in what the U.S. territory’s governor warns might be a “catastrophic” storm. Just two weeks ago, the island endured an indirect blow from Hurricane Irma, which left hundreds of thousands without electricity and caused up to $1 billion in damages on the already-bankrupt territory.
Maria is on track to make more direct landfall on Puerto Rico. Local authorities have urged people in flimsy homes to seek more stable shelter.
"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," Puerto Rico’s public safety commissioner Hector Pesquera told people in unstable housing in a statement. "I don't know how to make this any clearer.”Bell said it was too early to predict where the hurricane would land after Puerto Rico.
“Right now most of the guidance has it curving away from the U.S. but it’s still a little too early to tell,” he said. “We definitely want to keep an eye on this storm.”