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'Potentially Catastrophic' Hurricane Maria Devastates Dominica, Heads For Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria has already left the streets flooded in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, on Tuesday.

Updated at 11:30 a.m. ET

Hurricane Maria is barreling toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a "potentially catastrophic" Category 5 hurricane and is forecast to approach those islands Wednesday.

On the island of Dominica, which was raked by the storm late Monday, the prime minister says that "initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far, we have lost all what money can buy and replace."

"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the National Hurricane Center stated in its 11 a.m. ET advisory Tuesday, just two weeks after many of the same areas were devastated by Hurricane Irma.

In a series of posts on Facebook, Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of Dominica, described the devastation to his own home.

"We do not know what is happening outside. We dare not look out," he wrote Monday evening. "Certainly no sleep for anyone in Dominica. I believe my residence may have sustained some damage."

Minutes later, the prime minister posted, "Rough! Rough! Rough!"

Then he wrote, "My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding."

Skerrit later said he had been rescued. But the fact that the island nation's prime minister could see the roof fly off his own home highlighted the risks for the people living in the storm's path.

"So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with," he wrote. "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 National Hurricane Center says hurricane warnings are in effect for the islands of Guadeloupe, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Montserrat, as well as for the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The storm has maximum sustained winds of around 160 miles per hour but has fluctuated in intensity over the past day. That is likely to continue, forecasters say. However, the NHC adds, "Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous category 4 or 5 hurricane until it moves near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico."

As of the NHC's 11 a.m. advisory, Maria was located about 115 miles west of the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, moving west-northwest at 10 miles per hour.

It says Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands could see water levels rise 6 to 9 feet, "if the peak surge occurs at the time of high tide." The Leeward Islands and the British Virgin Islands could see water levels rise "by as much as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels."

That is expected to be accompanied by rainfall that "will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides."

Maria is following a different projected path than Irma, as NPR's Bill Chappell reported. That means "Puerto Rico and other islands that suffered only glancing blows from Irma could now be directly confronted with hurricane conditions."

Authorities in Puerto Rico are calling for "people in wooden or flimsy homes" to find shelter, The Associated Press reports.

"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," said Puerto Rico's public safety commissioner, Hector Pesquera, according to the news service. "I don't know how to make this any clearer."

Late Monday, President Trump approved emergency declarations for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and authorized federal assistance and disaster relief efforts.

Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, said 500 shelters were prepared to take families who evacuated. An interactive map released by the government shows areas that are prone to flooding as well as the locations of shelters across the island.

As NPR's Colin Dwyer has reported, the U.S. territory is "already reeling from billions in debt" and is in the middle of a debt-restructuring process. The economic situation could make relief efforts that much more difficult.

On islands already devastated by Irma, there are fears that a second hit could make a dangerous situation even worse by kicking up piles of debris. BuzzFeed U.K.'s Jim Waterson, reporting from the British Virgin Islands, tells NPR:

"There is so much stuff on the island. There's no where to put it, it's just piled up by the sides of roads. ... And if Maria came in and picked up shrapnel, essentially, picked up pieces of glass, picked up poles, this could be somehow more dangerous than the initial hit. Because at least then everything started off in one piece and was worn down. This time everything's already broken up."

The U.K. military has sent reinforcements to the islands. But Waterson says, "There's not much they can do right now. It's just a case of waiting for the storm to pass and picking up the pieces afterwards."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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