Hurricane Maria, which catapulted in strength from a Category 1 storm to a monstrous Category 5 hurricane on Monday, is churning its way toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
On Monday night, Hurricane Maria became the first Category 5 storm on record to hit the island tiny nation of Dominica. The eye of the storm could be seen in satellite images sitting on top of the center of Dominica, with the fierce 160-mile-per-hour winds of the eyewall pounding the country.
Harrowing messages from the island’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, illustrated the dire plight of that tiny island, where the eye of the storm crossed over close to 10 p.m. ET on Monday night.
“Initial reports are of widespread devastation,” Skerrit wrote early Tuesday.
“So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.”
“So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit added. “The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn away roofs in the city and the countryside.”
The storm now poses a dire threat to Puerto Rico, where it is expected to make landfall as a Category 4 or 5 storm on Wednesday. As Hurricane Maria approaches Puerto Rico, it may also make a direct hit on the island of St. Croix. In addition, its strong winds and heavy rains will likely affect some of the same areas hit hardest last week, when another Category 5 storm, Hurricane Irma, tore across the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and knocked out power to a large portion of Puerto Rico.
Much of the relief efforts to stave off a humanitarian crisis post-Irma have been run out of St. Croix and Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Maria is likely to shut down the flow of aid for a time.
Pat McCafferty, who experienced Hurricane Irma on St. John and is staying for Maria, said the fact that another Category 5 storm is on the way there, “Almost feels like it’s not real life.”
“I am worried for my friends in the hills that could face massive mudslides, our friends in St. Croix who dried out their grocery stores and clothes to support us and friends from Puerto Rico who did the same,” McCafferty said in a text message. “Once those two are hit, all American territories will have no aid until the USA comes.”
“All of us small islands look after each other, and if all of us are destroyed… then what?”
All of us small islands look after each other, and if all of us are destroyed… then what?
Puerto Rico prepares
The storm could devastate Puerto Rico, which has not seen a direct hit by a hurricane this powerful in many decades.
If Maria does rank as a Category 5 storm, with sustained winds of greater than 155 miles per hour, when it hits Puerto Rico, then it would be only the second such storm to hit that island since 1851.
The last Category 4 storm to strike Puerto Rico was Hurricane Hugo in 1989, whereas the most recent Category 4 storm took place way back in 1932. In addition, the most recent Category 5 hurricane to strike Puerto Rico occurred back in 1928.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami is predicting a storm surge that will raise water levels as high as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels in the Leeward Islands and British Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico, the combination of a storm surge and the tide could yield 6 to 9 feet of water above the ground, assuming the peak surge occurs at the time of high tide.
The National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office in Puerto Rico issued a statement on Tuesday morning warning of “catastrophic damage” from the storms winds alone. The NWS is also concerned about the potential for up to 2 feet of rain to fall in a short period of time, which could produce deadly mudslides. “Devastating to catastrophic flooding is also expected,” the statement said.
Maria is yet another rapid intensifier
Category 5 storms are unusual in their own right, but having two Category 5 storms in a single season is even more rare. In addition, both Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit their peak intensity at a more eastern longitude than average, when compared to past Category 5 storms.
Hurricane Maria also intensified from a Category 1 to a Category 5 storm in just 15 hours on Monday, which is one of the most rapid rates measured, but does not set a record. For example, Hurricane Wilma pulled a similar feat in the Atlantic basin in 2005, but in just 12 hours.
The factors that control rapid intensification include the presence of mild ocean waters, light winds at the upper levels, and other specific atmospheric conditions. All three devastating storms this year so far have undergone periods of rapid intensification: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Some studies have shown that as the world warms, and ocean temperatures increase, intensification rates of tropical storms and hurricanes have increased in some ocean basins of the world. In one study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in 2012, the average time needed for a tropical cyclone to intensify from a Category 1 to a Category 4 storm has been reduced by nearly 20 hours in a timespan of just 25 years.
However, this, along with other questions of how global warming is already affecting hurricanes like Maria, is still an area of active research.