Hurricane Maria: Storm pummels Dominica; barrels toward US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria: Storm pummels Dominica; barrels toward US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria: Storm pummels Dominica; barrels toward US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico

Updated 20 September 2017, 6:50 AEST

Hurricane Maria, the second major storm to hit the Caribbean this month, pushes towards the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico after ripping through Dominica causing "mind boggling damage".

Hurricane Maria, the second major storm to hit the Caribbean this month, is pushing towards the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico after ripping through the small island nation of Dominica causing "mind boggling" damage.

Key points:

  • Maria fluctuates in strength but expected to stay a category four or five
  • Dominica's PM reports "mind boggling" devastation, his own roof ripped off
  • Maria is expected to hit Puerto Rico by early Wednesday morning (local time)
  • Maris is the fourth major hurricane to hit the area after Irma, Harvey, and Jose

Maria, a "potentially catastrophic" storm, regained rare category five strength on Tuesday as it churned about 240 kilometres south-east of St Croix in the Virgin Islands, with maximum sustained winds of 260 kilometres per hour, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said.

The storm lashed Guadeloupe and ploughed through Dominica, an island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, causing widespread devastation, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in a Facebook post.

"I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating … indeed, mind boggling," he said.

"My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured.

"The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with.

"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 Guadeloupe prefecture said in a Twitter post that one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said.

Just to the south of Dominica, the French island of Martinique reportedly escaped Maria largely unscathed, but a communications blackout with fellow French territory Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, officials said.

While the intensity of the hurricane may fluctuate over the next day or two, Maria is expected to remain a category four or five storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the NHC said.

The storm was on track to move over the north-eastern Caribbean Sea and — by Tuesday night or early Wednesday — begin lashing the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where millions are still reeling from Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

If Maria retains its strength, it would be the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, since a category four storm swept the US island territory in 1932, NHC spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.

The last major hurricane to strike Puerto Rico directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a category three storm in 1998, he said.

The Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, urged island residents on Twitter to brace for the storm's arrival.

"It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter," he said.

Puerto Rico narrowly avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Hurricane Irma, which reached a rare category five status and ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record before devastating several smaller islands, including the US Virgin Islands of St Thomas and St John.

Maria is expected to whip up storm surges — seawater driven ashore by wind — of up to 2.7 metres above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 64 centimetres of rain, it said.

Puerto Rico, an island of about 3.4 million inhabitants, opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to Maria's high winds as residents rushed to buy plywood, water and other supplies.

Maria marks the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane — defined as category three or higher — following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said.

Those numbers are all above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017.

Reuters