On Monday, the National Hurricane Center warned that Hurricane Maria has rapidly intensified from a Category Three storm to a “potentially catastrophic” Category Five, with maximum sustained winds of 140 knots. It was nearing Dominica in the Leeward Islands on Monday evening, and if it makes landfall at its present strength, this year will be the second on record in which two Category Five storms touched soil in the Atlantic basin.
Maria is forecast to make landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday. The storm surge is expected to reach six to nine feet in the hurricane's path, and rainfall will be in the range of six to 12 inches, with isolated areas receiving up to 20 inches.
Maria arrives less than two weeks after Hurricane Irma decimated Barbuda, St. Martin and St. Thomas, forcing thousands to flee to Puerto Rico. Those evacuees – and many of the hard-hit islands they called home – are now set to experience another major storm.
To prepare for Maria, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello has declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard. "We are informing citizens that 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 50 miles per hour," he said. Schools and government offices have closed, shelters have been prepared and local authorities have begun to ration key supplies in advance of the storm.
The U.S. Coast Guard captain of the port for Sector San Juan has set port condition X-Ray for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in anticipation of the storm’s arrival. The port status is a warning, and does not immediately affect operations or commercial traffic. However, the COTP reminded mariners that there are no safe havens in these harbors and all vessels of more than 500 gross tons should make plans to leave.
The Coast Guard is making its own preparations to keep its equipment safe from the storm. “We are relocating our personnel and assets to protect them from Hurricane Maria and strategically position them so that they are readily available to respond . . . once the conditions are safe," said Capt. Eric P. King, Coast Guard Captain of the Port San Juan. “Our priorities following the hurricane are the safety of our personnel and the public and to inspect facilities and navigable channels in order to reopen the ports and reestablish maritime commerce to the islands as soon as possible." The Coast Guard's SAR capabilities will be limited until conditions are safe enough to redeploy assets.
On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, officials are warning residents not to stay in storm-damaged homes when Hurricane Maria passes, but to evacuate to shelters while they can. On Guadelupe, French officials report that the coming storm could knock out the relief effort for St. Martin. The French government has been using Guadeloupe as a staging ground for assistance to its hard-hit neighbor, which is still in the beginning stages of recovery after the passage of Hurricane Irma.