The ferocious Hurricane Maria continued its charge toward Puerto Rico Tuesday as a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds of 160 mph, bringing the potential for devastating winds and flooding as the National Hurricane Center warned time was running out to "protect life and property."
Calling Maria "potentially catastrophic," the National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory that the eye of the storm was expected to move over the northeastern Caribbean Sea Tuesday and pass near or over the U.S. Virgin Islands overnight and then Puerto Rico Wednesday. Hurricane warnings are in effect for those areas and sustained tropical storm-force winds have already been reported from Guadeloupe and Antigua, which are also in the warning zone.
(Puerto Rico está en la ruta del huracán María, que se espera cobre más vigor entre esta noche y mañana. Mira aquí la última información sobre esta poderosa tormenta)
Maria has vacillated a bit between Category 4 and 5 hurricane status since Monday, when it surged from a Category 1 to a Category 5 storm in a matter of hours. Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous category 4 or 5 hurricane while it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, forecasters say.
(Click here for an interactive radar from Telemundo.)
A direct hit on Puerto Rico, still reeling from Irma-related power outages and damage, could be historically devastating. A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 7 to 11 feet above normal tide levels in the hurricane warning area, and the water could reach up to 9 feet in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands if peak surge occurs at the time of high tide, forecasters say.
Maria is expected to dump up to 18 inches of rain on Puerto Rico, with up to 25 inches possible in spots, which brings the chance of life-threatening mudslides and flash floods. Authorities have warned people in wooden or flimsy homes to find shelter, and the island has prepared thousands of shelters for evacuees.
"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico's public safety commissioner. "I don't know how to make this any clearer."
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Puerto Rico had 500 shelters capable of taking in up to 133,000 people in a worst-case scenario. He also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to bring drinking water and help restore power immediately after the storm.
"This storm promises to be catastrophic for our island," said Ernesto Morales with the U.S. National Weather Service in San Juan. "All of Puerto Rico will experience hurricane force winds."
The airport in San Juan is expected to shut down Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Maria has already wreaked havoc on Dominica, where Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit wrote in a series of Facebook posts about its unrelenting fury.
"Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace," he wrote. "My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains."
He went on to write that officials will hit the road as soon as the all clear is given to search for the injured and those "trapped in the rubble."
"I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating...indeed, mind boggling. My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured."