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Maria, expected to become a major hurricane, takes aim at battered Caribbean

Maria is forecast to become a major hurricane as it moves near the Leeward Islands, the National Hurricane Center announced Sunday night.

Maria officially became a hurricane late Sunday afternoon, taking aim at already battered islands in the Caribbean amid growing concerns that Florida again could become a target.

The National Hurricane Center said Maria had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph as of 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, making it a Category 1 hurricane. By 11 p.m. it had strengthened to 85 mph.

Maria is the seventh hurricane of the 2017 season.

As of 11 p.m., the storm was 100 miles northeast of Barbados and 210 miles east southeast from the island of Dominica. It was moving west northwest at about 13 mph.

The government of Antigua and Barbuda on Sunday issued a Hurricane Warning for St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat and a Tropical Storm Warning for Antigua and Barbuda.

The French government issued a Hurricane Warning for Martinique.

A Hurricane Watch was issued for the U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the British Virgin Islands and could be extended to Puerto Rico early Monday, the Hurricane Center said.

Forecasters said Dominica and Guadeloupe are probably facing a Category 2 hurricane, with sustained winds of 96-110 mph, Monday night and Tuesday.

After being hit by Hurricane Irma, U.S. Virgin Island residents in St. John are now trying to leave the island before Hurricane Maria strikes the area. USA TODAY

“It is moving along very quickly, which is concerning,” AccuWeather meteorologist Dave Samuhel said. “They are going to have a direct hit from a hurricane. The question is how strong will it be.”

By Wednesday, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are among the islands likely to take the hit from what will likely be a Category 4 storm.

“A little less confidence about its track, but I would say be prepared for a major hurricane, a glancing blow if not full landfall,” Samuhel said. “And it will likely be a stronger hurricane by at least a category.”

More: Hurricane Jose ambles away, Tropical Storm Maria tracks Irma’s early path

More: Florida Keys re-open after punishing Hurricane Irma

In Puerto Rico, schools were already closed for Monday, government workers were told to work just half a day, and 450 shelters capable of housing 67,000 people — and almost twice that in a dire emergency — were being prepared.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the island is ready to provide food for up to 20 days to up to 240,000 evacuees if necessary. The island has a fragile electrical grid and much of its housing falls below standard code. The island avoided a direct hit from Hurricane Irma but still suffered massive power outages.

Rossello tweeted: “In prep for the passage of potential hurricane #Maria, thanks to @FEMA_Brock & @WhiteHouse for letting #PuertoRico know they stand by us.”

While Maria does not pose an imminent threat to Florida, still reeling from the carnage wrought by Hurricane Irma, Samuhel said forecasters are watching closely. Maria is forecast to reach the Bahamas next weekend, putting it dangerously close to Florida’s eastern coast.

The storm remains far out and other factors could change its course, Samuhel said hopefully.

“We may luck out and it turns north,” he said. “Unfortunately it looks like a blocking high-pressure system could force it into Florida.”

There was some good storm news on Sunday: Hurricane Jose appears to have peaked in strength with sustained winds of 90 mph and should weaken as it rolls north, away from the U.S. East Coast. Swells driven by Jose are already causing dangerous rip currents along the Southern coastline, a phenomenon that will move north in coming days, he said.

One hitch: A new moon Tuesday night will push tides up a foot or two. That coupled with Jose means the New England coast could face beach erosion, plus wind and rain from the storm.

Also in play was Tropical Storm Lee, which has slipped in strength to become a tropical depression. Lee actually formed ahead of Maria but has languished and is breaking up.

“Lee, at least, shouldn’t be an issue for us,” Samuhel said.

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