ROSEAU, Dominica (CBSNewYork/AP) — Forecasters say potentially catastrophic Hurricane Maria is continuing on its course toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the extremely dangerous Category 5 storm is forecast to hit the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
As rains began to lash Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that Maria could hit “with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations.”
“We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico,” Rossello said, adding that a likely island wide power outage and communication blackout could last for days. “We’re going to have to rebuild.”
Authorities warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm’s expected arrival 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.”
By Tuesday night, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Maria’s winds had intensified to 175 mph and additional strengthening was possible. At 11 p.m. EST, Maria was centered about 30 miles south-southeast of St. Croix, or 120 miles southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was moving west-northwest at 10 mph.
Maria’s center was expected to pass several miles south of St. Croix late Tuesday on its way to Puerto Rico, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to ask that people remain alert.
St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago. But this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds starting about 11 p.m. EST, Mapp said.
“For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear,” he said during a brief press conference late Tuesday. “Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around. Something for your head in case your roof should breach. … I don’t really recommend you be sleeping from 11 o’clock to 4 (a.m.). … Be aware of what’s going on around you.”
The storm pounded the small island of Dominica with catastrophic winds overnight Monday into Tuesday.
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.
“Our first order of business will be search and rescue so that we can account for each and every citizen that was on the island during this really devastating hurricane,” Skerrit said.
Maria’s eye roared over the island late Monday night. The storm briefly dipped to Category 4 strength early Tuesday before regaining Category 5 status. Fierce winds and rain lashed mountainous Dominica for hours.
The storm knocked out communications for the entire country, leaving anyone outside Dominica struggling to determine the extent of damage, though it was clearly widespread. “The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in a telephone interview from New York.
She said she lost contact with the island about 4 a.m. At that point, officials had learned that 70 percent of homes had lost their roofs, including her own.
“I lost everything,” she said, adding there had been no word on casualties. “As a Category 5 it would be naive not to expect any (injuries) but I don’t know how many,” she said.
The island’s broadcast service was also down Tuesday and Akamai Technologies, a company that tracks the status of the internet around the world, said most of Dominica’s internet service appeared to have been lost by midday. The Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica reported a widespread loss of communication on the island, and relatives of students posted messages on its Facebook page saying they had been unable to talk to their loved ones since late Monday evening as the storm approached.
On the nearby island of Martinique, officials said about 25,000 households were without electricity and two small towns without water after Maria roared past.
Hurricane warnings had been 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, St. Lucia and Anguilla.
In San Juan, normally crowded streets and beaches were empty by Tuesday afternoon as families heading to safe shelter packed up their cars and pets or secured windows and doors around their home to prepare for severe winds expected to lash the island for 12 to 24 hours. Nearly 2,800 people were in shelters across Puerto Rico, along with 105 pets, officials said.
“We’re definitely afraid,” said Erica Huber, a 33-year-old teacher from Venice, Florida, who moved to Puerto Rico a month ago with her 12-year-old daughter.
“I’m more worried about the aftermath: Is there going to be enough food and water?” she said.
In shops across the island, shelves were bare after people filled shopping carts with the limited amount of water, batteries, baby formula, milk and other items they could find.
Iris Tosado, a 64-year-old widowed housewife, scanned the nearly empty shelves before heading back home. She and her disabled son planned to spend the storm with relatives because their home is made of wood, and she prayed that it would not be destroyed.
“God, it’s the only thing I have,'” she said. “This is not looking good.”
Maria ties for the eighth strongest storm in Atlantic history, when measured by wind speed. This year’s Irma, which had 185 mph winds, ranks second.
Hurricane center forecasters said it “now appears likely” that Maria will still be at Category 5 intensity when it moves over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday night and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, bringing with it “life-threatening” flooding from rain and storm surge.
Forecasters said the storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet near the storm’s center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” Pesquera said. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”
Rossello said Puerto Rico had 500 shelters capable of taking in up to 133,000 people in a worst-case scenario.
“Complacency worries me right now,” he said earlier Tuesday. “People might not understand the magnitude of this hurricane or think it won’t hit us hard. All indications are that this will be devastating and catastrophic.”
Rossello also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to bring drinking water and help restore power immediately after the storm, which could hit as a Category 5 hurricane.
“That is catastrophic in every way,” said Roberto Garcia with the National Weather Service in San Juan. “People have to act, and they have to act now. They can no longer wait for a miracle.”
Residents have been stocking up on supplies and boarding up their homes again. Many areas are still covered in rubble and debris left behind by Irma. They say rebuilding will be a huge task, but right now the focus is on the immediate threat of Maria.
“When you get to the bottom you have nowhere to go but up, but it’s one board, one stick, one log, one brick at a time,” said Irma survivor Cindy Stone.
Here in New York, Linda Vega says she and her husband have been praying for her relatives in and around San Juan.
Her uncle was lucky to stock up on basic supplies.
“I just hope everyone in Puerto Rico survives this,” she told CBS2’s Jessica Borg. “He has a lot of water and medicine he got, just in case.”
Jose Morales says his family in Arecibo, Puerto Rico ran out in a panic a few days ago to get what they need to get by.
“They got generators, they bought a lot of water, canned food, Pampers,” he said.
But Morales says he knows it might not be enough to sustain a direct hit from Maria and its aftermath.
“We just have to pray that everyone comes out of it alright,” he said.
Thousands of families are still dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irma, with no lights and running water. Store shelves are bare and people can’t buy necessities.
People are busy making cash donations to try to get supplies to those in need as soon as possible.
Melody Capote is the Deputy Director of the Caribbean Cultural Center in New York City. She has a house in Puerto Rico and prays for those who may lose theirs.
“Given the economic difficulties Puerto Rico is facing, and the various communities that have it, and others that don’t have it,” she said. “The communities that do are gonna suffer that much more.”
Rita Porto says she’s praying her cousin has found shelter, knowing she’ll likely spend weeks there if Maria’s wrath is as powerful as projected.
“It’s scary, it’s scary,” she said.
The National Hurricane Center predicts a dangerous storm surge and violent waves as the water rises up to 11 feet above normal levels. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
Meanwhile in the U.S. Virgin Islands, territorial Gov. Kenneth Mapp said Tuesday would be “a very, very long night.”
St. Thomas and St. John are still stunned from a direct hit by Irma, which did extensive damage and caused four deaths on the two islands.
Family members in New York say all they can do now is just wait to see how ferocious Maria is and hope they can at least get in touch with their loved ones after the storm hits to see if they’re okay.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)