SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Hurricane Maria maintained catastrophic Category 5 hurricane status on Tuesday after it entered the Caribbean, its dreaded "pinhole" eye passing directly over the tiny island of Dominica before heading for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Authorities in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which faced the possibility of a direct hit, warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm's expected arrival there on Wednesday.
"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," said Hector Pesquera, the island's public safety commissioner. "I don't know how to make this any clearer."
Maria was packing 175 mph (280 km/h) winds and was located 30 miles (45 kms) southeast of St Croix and about 120 miles (190 kms) southeast of San Juan.
Nearly 70,000 people in Puerto Rico were still without power following their earlier brush with Irma and nearly 200 remained in shelters as Maria approached.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Puerto Rico had 500 shelters capable of taking in up to 133,000 people in a worst-case scenario. "This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven't seen for several generations," he said. Puerto Rico has not faced a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.
"We are going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We're going to have to rebuild," he said.
Rossello warned that an island-wide power outage could last a "long time" given the power company's deteriorated and weak infrastructure.
Most models have Maria turning north after leaving Puerto Rico steering clear of the Bahamas and Florida, but forecasters warn that atmospheric conditions could still push it west posing greater danger for the United States.
Hurricane Maria smashed into Dominica late Monday ripping the roof off even the prime minister's residence and causing what he called "mind-boggling" devastation Tuesday as it plunged into a Caribbean region already ravaged by Hurricane Irma.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on his Facebook page that "initial reports are of widespread devastation" and said he feared there would be deaths due to rain-fed landslides.
"So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with," Skerrit wrote. "The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go," he added before he had to be rescued.
The 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 30 people and causing $500 million in damage.
Fierce winds and rain lashed mountainous Dominica for hours. A police official on the island, Inspector Pellam Jno Baptiste, said late Monday night that there were no immediate reports of casualties but it was too dangerous for officers to check conditions.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria's eye was located about 170 miles (275 kilometers) southeast of St. Croix, and the storm was moving west-northwest over the Caribbean at 9 mph (15 kph).
Forecasters warned Maria could further intensify, noting its eye had shrunk to a compact 10 miles across and warning: "Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye."
That generally means an extremely strong hurricane will get even mightier, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. He said it just like when a spinning ice skater brings in their arms and rotates faster.
"You just don't see those in weaker hurricanes," he said.
The storm's hurricane-force winds extended out about 35 miles (45 kilometers) and tropical storm-force winds out as far as 125 miles (205 kilometers).
Hurricane warnings were posted for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. A tropical storm warning was issued for Martinique, Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and Anguilla.
Forecasters said storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) near the storm's center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 centimeters) of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters said the storm was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.
A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York's Long Island and Connecticut.
Jose's center was about 350 miles (560 kilometers) south-southwest of Nantucket, Massachusetts, early Tuesday and moving north at 9 mph (15 kph). The storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph).
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. "There have now been two Atlantic Category 5 storms in 2017: Maria and Irma," according to
Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private forecaster, Weather Underground. "The Atlantic has had only five other years on record with multiple Cat 5s: Dean and Felix in 2007; Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005; Carla and Hattie in 1961; and two Cat 5s each in 1932 and 1933," he added.
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.
Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami