Warnings and watches lit up across the Caribbean on Monday as Hurricane Maria gained strength and roared toward islands already hobbled by the carnage of Hurricane Irma.
Maria, which grew to a Category 5 hurricane Monday night, had maximum sustained winds of 160 mph at 8 p.m. ET. At 9:15 p.m. ET Monday, the ferocious storm had touched land on Dominica, the National Hurricane Center said.
After pounding Dominica with high winds, Maria weakened slightly to a still-dangerous Category 4 storm.
The National Hurricane Center said early Tuesday that top sustained winds had fallen slightly to 155 mph and that high winds were starting to diminish over Dominica.
The storm is moving west-northwest at 9 mph on a course that threatens other parts of the Caribbean including Puerto Rico.
In a series of Facebook posts, Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit captured the fury of the storm as it made landfall on the mountainous island.
“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote at the start of a series of increasingly harrowing posts. He later said: “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.”
Seven minutes later Skerrit posted that he had been rescued.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the government has prepared hundreds of shelters capable of housing more than 100,000 evacuees if necessary.
The National Weather Service in Puerto Rico warned that "catastrophic winds" are expected from Maria beginning Tuesday afternoon. "Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months."
In addition, "major to record rains and flooding are expected to accompany Maria," the weather service said.
It is still too early to determine whether the storm will impact the U.S. East Coast — and any threat would not be until early next week — but a strike on Florida is still a possibility.
"We may luck out and it turns north before reaching Florida," AccuWeather meteorologist Dave Samuhel said. "Unfortunately, it looks like blocking high pressure could force it into Florida. Definitely something we are watching."
Due to the uncertain path of Hurricane Jose, it's "much too early to judge what portions of the U.S. East Coast or Canada might be threatened by Maria next week," according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters.
“This storm promises to be catastrophic for our island,” said Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan. “All of Puerto Rico will experience hurricane-force winds.”
But first, the U.S. Virgin Islands likely will face "at least a glancing blow if not a full-on landfall" late Tuesday or early Wednesday, Samuhel said.
On St. John's, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, people lined up to flee the storm. Irma blasted across the island Sept. 7, a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 mph. Homes and businesses were blown apart and power is expected to be out for months.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic could see Maria's wrath on Wednesday.
A potential impact on the East Coast will depend on steering currents in the upper atmosphere over the western Atlantic and the eastern U.S. that can't be determined more than a week in advance, according to the Weather Channel.
© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved