Hurricane Maria cripples Dominica as it churns toward Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria has pounded Dominica with “widespread devastation” as it barrels toward St. Croix and threatens catastrophic damage to Puerto Rico.

Hurling winds of 160 mph (257 kph), Maria shredded the Dominica Prime Minister’s house overnight Monday into Tuesday and left much of the island — population 73,000 — in ruins.

“Initial reports are of widespread devastation,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on Facebook.

“So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is … news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.”

A few hours earlier, the Prime Minister posted, “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.”

Maria is now the strongest hurricane on record to make landfall in Dominica, a former French and British colony with an economy heavily dependent on tourism and agriculture.

‘Don’t go out under any circumstances’

As of 8 a.m. ET Tuesday, Maria was centered about 85 miles (135 kilometers) west of Guadeloupe and 170 miles (275 kilometers) southeast of St. Croix.

A hurricane warning is in effect Tuesday for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques.

“A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels in the hurricane warning area near where the center of Maria moves across the Leeward Islands and the British Virgin Islands,” the National Hurricane Center said.

Guadeloupe’s regional government tweeted a stern warning to residents Tuesday: “Don’t go out under any circumstances.”

Puerto Rico says Maria ‘will be catastrophic’

After crossing St. Croix, Maria will head toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday night and Wednesday as “an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane,” the National Hurricane Center said.

That would make Maria the first Category 4 or 5 hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years.

RELATED: Track the storm here

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has declared a state of emergency. And US President Donald Trump issued an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico to aid with federal assistance.

Puerto Rico sheltered many of the evacuees who fled from other Caribbean Islands during Hurricane Irma earlier this month. Now those evacuees and native Puerto Ricans are bracing for devastation.

“This is an event that will be damaging to the infrastructure, that will be catastrophic,” Rosselló said. “Our only focus right now should be to make sure we save lives.”

The governor said 500 shelters are available on the island.

“We expect to feel storm winds, tropical storm winds, (from) Tuesday up until late on Thursday. That’s about two-and-a-half days of tropical storm winds,” Rosselló said.

“On Wednesday we will feel the brunt — all of the island will feel the brunt of sustained Category 4 or 5 winds.”

On the coastal city of Salinas, residents waited in long lines for water and essentials.

Restaurateur Juan Miguel Gonzalez said he was worried about the storm’s impact. “Not about material stuff, rather the people,” he said.

His staff was working to prepare the waterfront property for Maria’s arrival.

The Puerto Rico Convention Center in the capital San Juan to the north — which is still housing Hurricane Irma evacuees from other Caribbean islands — is preparing to accept thousands of residents as the worst of the storm is felt.

Martinique largely spared

One bit of good news emerged from the Caribbean: The French island of Martinique suffered no major damage, the French Interior Ministry tweeted Tuesday.

Maria knocked out power to about 50,000 homes, and 10,000 homes had no water. But overall, the damage assessment was “reassuring,” the French Interior Ministry said.

The director general of French civil security, Jacques Witkowski, said only two people on Martinique suffered minor injuries.

Rapid intensification

In just 30 hours, Maria’s intensity exploded from 65 mph on Sunday to 160 mph by Monday night, the National Hurricane Center said.

The British Foreign Office said more than 1,300 troops are on standby, either on affected islands or in nearby locations, ready to help after Maria tears through.

One military team has been deployed to the British Virgin Islands, and a British military reconnaissance team is on standby to go to the British territory of Montserrat.

The HMS Ocean is set to arrive in the area at week’s end with 60 tons of government supplies.

Another hurricane, Jose, is also churning in the Atlantic and has spawned tropical storm warnings for part of the US East Coast.

While forecasters don’t anticipate Jose making landfall in the US, it’s still expected to cause “dangerous surf and rip currents” along the East Coast in the next few days, the hurricane center said.