This satellite image obtained from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows Hurricane Maria at 1215 UTC on September 18, 2017. Maria strengthened to a Category Two storm Monday with maximum sustained winds of 110mph (175kph), as it menaced Caribbean islands already hard-hit by Hurricane Irma. The US National Hurricane Center expected Maria to grow into a a Category Three later Monday with the French territory of Guadeloupe, the staging area for relief operations for several islands battered by Irma, in the crosshairs. / AFP PHOTO / NOAA/RAMMB / HO
Hurricane Maria strengthened rapidly on Monday as it blasted towards the eastern Caribbean, forcing exhausted islanders — still recovering from megastorm Irma — to brace for the worst again.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the “major hurricane” had intensified to Category 3 as it approached the French territory of Guadeloupe, the base for relief operations for several islands devastated by Irma this month.
Islanders on neighbouring Martinique, which is also part of France, have been ordered to stay indoors as a maximum-level “violet” alert went into force.
Schools, businesses and government offices have been ordered shut in Guadeloupe, where Maria was due to make landfall around midday (1600 GMT). Each island has a population of around 400,000 people.
The NHC warned the hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 193 kilometres (120 miles) an hour, would strengthen further over the next two days.
Maria could produce a “dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves” that would raise water levels by four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 metres), it said.
Up to 20 inches (51 centimetres) of rain could drench the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands through Wednesday night — conditions that could cause life-threatening floods and mudslides.
Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis and the British island of Montserrat are also on alert.
– Europe sends reinforcements –
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.
On the island of St Martin, which is split between France and the Netherlands, the Red Cross flew in 11 tonnes of aid from the Dutch mainland on Sunday, including urgently needed materials to replace roofs ripped off by Irma.
On the neighbouring Dutch islands of Saba and St Eustatius, the Red Cross was handing out tarpaulins to people left homeless by Irma, with little to protect themselves from torrential rain and fierce winds.
The Dutch navy tweeted that troops were heading to the two tiny islands to ensure security following widespread complaints of looting and lawlessness on St Martin after the first hurricane.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said 110 more soldiers would be deployed to the region to reinforce about 3,000 people already there shoring up security, rebuilding infrastructure and distributing aid.
But he warned that “we will have major difficulties” if Guadeloupe is hard hit, noting the territory was “the logistical centre from where we could supply St Martin and organise all the airlifts”.
Dutch ships Zeeland and Pelikaan, which have been ferrying humanitarian goods from Curacao in recent days, have been grounded on the Dutch island for safety until Maria passes, the navy said on Facebook.
Hurricane Maria is due to sweep over the south of Sint Maarten — as the Dutch side of St Martin is called — on Tuesday. The island was among the worst hit by Irma, with 14 killed.
– ‘Culture of risk’ –
Officials in Guadeloupe predicted severe flooding in low-lying areas and urged residents to move to higher ground.
But in the island’s capital Pointe-a-Pitre, local official Josette Borel-Lincertin said authorities had ample experience of preparing for hurricanes.
“We have a culture of risk, we know what needs to be done,” she said.
Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, left around 40 people dead in the Caribbean before churning west and pounding Florida, where at least 20 people died.
As of 1500 GMT the storm was swirling about 85 miles (135 kilometres) east of Martinique, according to the NHC, on track to barrel across the eastern Caribbean late Monday and into the night.
Air France, Air Caraibes and Corsair have cancelled flights in and out of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
Another hurricane, Jose, is also active in the Atlantic and has triggered tropical storm warnings for the northeastern United States.
Irma broke weather records when it whipped up winds of 295 kilometres per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours straight.
Many scientists are convinced that megastorms such as Irma, and Harvey before it, are intensified by the greater energy they can draw from oceans that are warming as a result of climate change.