A string of eastern Caribbean islands are facing their second major storm this month as Hurricane Maria heads towards them with intense winds, heavy rains, and dangerous storm surges.
- Maria is expected to make landfall in the eastern Caribbean this afternoon
- Businesses are shut down, transport is suspended, residents told not to go outside
- Residents are lost for words having just dealt with record-breaking Hurricane Irma
Officials on islands from French-controlled Martinique to the US Virgin Islands warned residents to prepare for the storm, which was upgraded to a major category five on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale by US forecasters.
Maria was located about 55 kilometres east of Martinique and was headed west-north-west on a track that would put it over the US territory of Puerto Rico by Tuesday night or Wednesday (local time), the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said this morning.
The NCH said the hurricane had maximum sustained winds of 215 kilometres per hour.
Streets were flooded in some residential parts of the island of Barbados, which had been experiencing heavy rain since Sunday as the storm approached.
Some island residents fled the ahead of the storm.
Among them was Beth Tamplin Jones, 45, who rode out Hurricane Irma earlier this month in the pantry of a friend's house on St John in the US Virgin Islands.
"It was so intense," said Ms Jones, who evacuated from St John to Puerto Rico last week and then got a flight to Atlanta, where she plans to remain until Maria passed.
"We're in hurricane alley, so we've had other storms, but nothing like this.
"I don't think anybody's ever been hit by a storm like [Irma]. To see another one coming is just so discouraging."
Maria was expected to bring storm surges — seawater driven ashore by wind — of up to nearly three metres, the NHC said. Parts of the central and southern Leeward Islands could see as much as half a metre of rain, it said.
Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were in effect for a string of islands in the area, including the US and British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda and the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin.
Several of those islands were devastated earlier this month when Hurricane Irma rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, killing more than 80 people on the islands and the US mainland.
'To go outside is to play with death'
Meteo France issued a red alert for Martinique. Businesses were ordered to shut down, public transport services suspended and residents told to take shelter in their houses.
"The risks are enormous given the winds we expect. To go outside in these conditions is to play with death," Lieutenant Colonel Michael Bernier, a senior civil defence agency official in Martinique, said.
Puerto Rico, a US territory which Irma grazed as it headed toward Cuba and Florida, opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to Maria's high winds.
"It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach [80 kilometres] per hour," Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told reporters on Monday.
More than 1,700 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighbouring Antigua after Irma damaged nearly every building there.
Forecasters were also tracking category one Hurricane Jose, which packed 120 kilometre-per-hour winds and was located about 430 kilometres east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The eye of that storm was forecast to remain off the east coast of the United States for the next few days, bringing dangerous surf and rip currents from Delaware through Massachusetts.