International desk, September 19: Hurricane Maria has strengthened to a “potentially catastrophic” category five storm, US forecasters say, as it bears down on islands in the Caribbean.The island of Dominica is one of the first in its path, facing sustained winds of 260km/h (160mph).
Maria is moving roughly along the same track as Irma, the hurricane that devastated the region this month.
Martinique declared a maximum-level alert while another French island, Guadeloupe, ordered evacuations.
The Prime Minister of Dominica said he had been rescued after the roof of his house was torn off and the building flooded.
Hurricane warnings are also in place for:
Puerto Rico: The US territory expects Maria to make landfall as a category three on Tuesday. It escaped the worst of Irma and has been an important hub for getting relief to islands more badly affected. Governor Ricardo Rossello urged islanders to seek refuge
US Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands: Both island chains suffered severe damage from Irma and President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency for the US territories on Monday. British authorities fear debris left behind by Irma could be whipped up by the new storm and pose an extra threat.
Some of these islands are still recovering after being hit by Hurricane Irma – another category five hurricane which left at least 37 people dead and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage.
The islands bearing the brunt of Maria are part of the Leeward Islands chain and include Antigua and Barbuda. The latter was evacuated after being devastated by Irma.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) increased the strength of Maria in just a few hours on Monday from a category two storm, to a category four and then to category five – the highest level.
Forecasters warned that heavy rainfall caused by the hurricane “could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides”.