Hurricane Maria reached catastrophic Category 5 hurricane status on Monday as it entered the Caribbean headed for Puerto Rico packing 160 mph winds, according to U.S. forecasters.
Maria suddenly erupted in strength on Monday as it approached the tiny island of Dominica, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The storm also poses a "real threat" to Puerto Rico, according to Governor Ricardo Rosselló.
Most models have Maria turning north over the southern Bahamas, well before before reaching Florida, but forecasters warn that atmospheric conditions could still push it west posing greater danger for the United States.
The tiny, mountainous island nation of Dominica with a population of about 72,000 was hit hard only two years ago by Tropical Storm Erika which triggered landslides and swollen rivers that swept away homes, roads and bridges, killing 20 people.
“This is not a time for heroism,” said Dominica's peime minister Roosevelt Skerrit. “This much water in Dominica is dangerous given our terrain."
Hurricane warnings and watches were also in effect for many of the very islands still trying to cope with the devastation left by Hurricane Irma, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the French/-Dutch island of St Martin/Sint Maarten. Forecasters were also warning of hurricane conditions for the Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat Monday.
Maria is the 13th named storm of an already busy 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. Before the start of the season which runs for six months from June 1 to Nov 30, forecasters had predicted an above normal total of up to 17 named storms and nine hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin, this year, with two to four reaching major Category 3 or stronger on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
Maria is the seventh hurricane of the season, and is projected to become the fourth major Category 3 event.
An average season produces 12 named storms of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
Warm water temperatures and vanishing El Niño odds are reasons for the increased numbers, scientists said at the strat of the season. Strong El Niños typically lead to increased wind shear in parts of the Atlantic Basin, suppressing the development or intensification of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic.
After Harvey and Irma, the U.S. has already met its annual average of one to two hurricane landfalls each season, according to NOAA's Hurricane Research Division statistics.
Irma, a Category 5 storm when it swept into the northern Caribbean early this month, killed at least 38 people on several islands, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses and upending the local tourism industry on which the islands depend.
In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Norma's threat to Mexico's Los Cabos area appeared to be easing. Forecasters said the storm was weakening and its center was likely to remain offshore.
The storm had winds of about 45 mph (75 kph) and it was centered about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south-southwest of Cabo San Lucas. That area was hit two weeks ago by Tropical Storm Lidia, which flooded streets and homes and killed at least four people.
The Baja California Sur state government readied storm shelters and canceled classes for Monday as well as calling off a Mexican Independence Day military parade in the state capital, La Paz.
Meanwhile, long-lived Hurricane Jose was moving northward off the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard, kicking up dangerous surf and rip currents. But it wasn't expected to make landfall.
It was centered about 420 miles (680 kilometers) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north at 8 mph (13 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 kph).
Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Lee formed in the Atlantic and Tropical Storm Otis in the Pacific on Saturday. Neither threatened land.