UPDATE 2 – Maria strengthens into a ‘potentially catastrophic’ category 5 hurricane

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Hurricane Maria rapidly intensified on Monday, becoming a “potentially catastrophic” category 5 storm as it reached the northeast Caribbean, U.S. forecasters say. Additional strengthening is possible over the next few days.

As of 8 p.m. ET on Monday, Maria was located about 15 miles (25 kilometers) southeast of Dominica, or 40 miles (70 kilometers) north of Martinique. Its maximum sustained winds have increased to 160 miles (260 kilometers) per hour with gusts up to 195 miles (315 kilometers) per hour.

“Recent reports from an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft indicate that Maria continues to rapidly strengthen,” said Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. He added that some additional strengthening is possible through Tuesday, though fluctuations in intensity are likely due to eyewall cycles and land interaction.

Tropical storm conditions were already occurring over parts of the Leeward Islands on Monday afternoon, and hurricane conditions are expected to spread across Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Martinique on late Monday night. Its storm surge will be accompanied by “large and destructive” waves, according to forecasters.

After moving through the Leeward Islands, the center of Maria is expected to pass off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday as it heads towards Puerto Rico, where it could make landfall on Wednesday afternoon as a category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles (240 kilometers) per hour.

Interaction with land in Puerto Rico will likely cause the hurricane to weaken, but Maria is expected to remain a major hurricane while it passes the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday. The storm could affect the Bahamas later in the week as it turns towards the north, which should keep it away from Florida.

As of Monday evening, a hurricane warning is in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Antigua, Barbuda, Martinique, and St. Lucia. A hurricane watch is in effect for Saba, St. Eustatius, the entire island of Saint Martin, St. Barthelemy, and parts of the Dominican Republic.

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