"Maria has strengthened to a hurricane and could be near major hurricane intensity which it affects portions of the Leeward Islands over the next few days, bringing risky wind, storm surge and rainfall hazards", the hurricane center said. Hurricane Maria is following a similar path as Hurricane Irma, which devastated parts of the Caribbean before coming on shore in Florida on September 10.
A hurricane warning - meaning hurricane conditions are expected to strike - has been issued for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis and Montserrat, as well as the neighboring British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. Hurricane force winds will likely continue across the eastern islands through late Wednesday and across Puerto Rico Thursday, nearly exactly a week after Irma's eye crossed the Virgin Islands.
"Maria continues to strengthen and is expected to be at major hurricane intensity when it affects portions of the Leeward Islands over the next few days, bringing unsafe wind, storm surge and rainfall hazards", the hurricane center said.
The center of the storm rolled off of Dominica early Tuesday and at 8 a.m. was 85 miles west of the island of Guadeloupe.
The eye is expected to move through the Leeward Islands later Monday.
Criticised for the pace of relief efforts in their overseas territories devastated by Irma, Britain, France and the Netherlands said they were boosting resources for the Caribbean as Maria approaches.
It hit the island of Dominica with 160 miles per hour maximum sustained winds.
Royal Caribbean has changed itineraries for two cruise ships so far due to the threat of Hurricane Maria which is causing further worry and destruction across parts of Eastern Caribbean.
Officials from French-controlled Martinique to the US Virgin Islands warned residents to prepare for the storm, now ranked by US forecasters as a major hurricane, at category three on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
Hours before Maria's expected landfall on Dominica - and just over week after the island was brushed by Irma - Skerrit urged residents to take any belongings that could become unsafe projectiles indoors. And this coming just about two weeks after Irma skirted off the northeast of Puerto Rico. Jose is starting to lose its tropical characteristics but winds remain hurricane strength at this time. The islands that have already been battered twice by Irma and Jose are on the northern edge of the system and won't take the brunt of this particular hurricane.
The worst part of the storm was likely to pass a good deal south of beleaguered Barbuda and Antigua, reeling from Hurricane Irma, but they could still get brushed by some strong wind gusts and heavy showers. Farther south, along the New Jersey and DE coastline, the tropical storm watch was dropped Monday night.
With Maria, the 2017 hurricane season has already featured four Category 4 or stronger storms; this has only happened four previous times by September 18.
Dominica has a total population of 73,000 residents. The storm chugged along at 9 miles per hour late Monday, according to the hurricane center. But even if Maria stays hundreds of miles east of North Carolina, rip currents on the coast are guaranteed, he said.