(This article, originally published at noon Monday, was last updated at 8 a.m. Tuesday with the latest information from the National Hurricane Center advisories.)
The wicked 2017 hurricane season began delivering more punishing blows Tuesday as Hurricane Maria raked across the Caribbean with “potentially catastrophic” winds of 160 mph. To the north, Hurricane Jose churned on a path to brush the Northeast coast with raging surf and potentially damaging gusts.
Maria strengthened to the highest-level Category 5 on Tuesday after making landfall on the island of Dominica. The storm carries the potential to cause widespread destruction along its path from the central Lesser Antilles through Puerto Rico, including some areas battered earlier this month by the huge Hurricane Irma.
“Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane while it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” the National Hurricane Center said Tuesday.
Jose is capable of producing coastal flooding and pockets of damaging wind from eastern Long Island to coastal Massachusetts, its effects are most likely to resemble those of a strong nor’easter — rather than a devastating hurricane.
This storm has rapidly intensified which is a potentially disastrous scenario for the islands it will sweep across. At 9:35 p.m. Monday, the storm made landfall in Dominica, causing widespread damage as it plowed west-northwest at 9 mph. It was the first Category 5 storm to strike Dominica in recorded history.
The country’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, said in a Facebook post that “We have lost all that money can buy.”
“My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured. We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds,” he added.
The hurricane center said fluctuations in intensity are possible as the storm makes its way to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico Tuesday night into Wednesday. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 30 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 125 miles.
At 8 a.m. Tuesday, the storm was positioned 170 miles southeast of St. Croix moving to the west-northwest at 9 mph.
On Monday, the storm cut across not only Dominica but also Martinique, French Guadeloupe and St. Lucia, where hurricane warnings were in effect. It was also passing close to and affecting St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat, under hurricane warnings, but perhaps positioned far enough north of the storm to miss its brunt.
The worst part of the storm was likely to pass a good deal south of beleaguered Barbuda and Antigua, reeling from Hurricane Irma, but they could still get brushed by some strong wind gusts and heavy showers.
On Tuesday, Maria is predicted to mostly pass through a patch of the Caribbean free of islands before potentially closing in on St. Croix, now under a hurricane warning, late in the day or at night. This island was one of the few Virgin Islands that was spared Irma’s wrath, but may well get hammered by Maria.
The other U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the British Virgin Islands will also need to carefully monitor and prepare for Maria. While they may remain north of its most severe effects, they could easily face hurricane conditions
By Wednesday, the storm is likely to pass very close to or directly affect Puerto Rico from southeast to northwest. A hurricane has not made landfall in Puerto Rico since Georges in 1998.
— Michael Lowry (@MichaelRLowry) September 18, 2017
The islands directly affected by the storm’s core face the likelihood of destructive winds of 120 to 160 mph and 12 to 18 inches of rain (with isolated totals of 20-25 inches, especially in high terrain), which will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.
A devastating storm surge of at least 6 to 9 feet above normally dry ground is likely to target coastlines positioned just north-northeast of the storm center — which could include the south shores of St. Croix and southeast Puerto Rico.
On Friday, the hurricane may come close to the Turks and Caicos and southeast Bahamas, which were ravaged by Irma. Beyond that point, Maria’s path becomes more uncertain. Some models suggest it could find an escape route out to sea, remaining offshore from the East Coast, but it is way too early to sound the all-clear.
With Maria, the 2017 hurricane season has already featured four Category 4 or stronger storms; this has only happened four previous times by Sept. 18.
“2017 joins 1932, 1933, 1961, 2005, and 2007 as only years with multiple Cat 5s; likely to join 2007 as the only with multiple Cat 5 landfalls,” tweeted MDA Federal, a meteorological consulting firm.
2017 is the first hurricane season with two Category 5 storms since 2007.
Jose, which is losing some of its tropical characteristics, is expected to behave like a strong nor’easter along the coast of the Northeast, from near Long Island to eastern Massachusetts.
The tropical storm warning is in effect for coastal Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, the areas most likely to be substantially impacted by Jose. A tropical storm watch continues for areas to the south down to eastern Long Island. Farther south, along the New Jersey and Delaware coastline, the tropical storm watch was dropped Monday night.
The storm, positioned 240 miles east-northeast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., was headed north at 9 mph at 5 a.m. Tuesday. It is expected to turn northeast tonight. The storm’s peak winds were around 75 mph and expected to remain at that intensity before gradually weakening on Wednesday.
The Hurricane Center said tropical storm-force winds could begin in coastal sections of the Northeast as soon as Tuesday and Tuesday night. Moderate coastal flooding is expected with water rising up to one to three feet above normally dry land at high tide. Because the storm is a slow-mover, beaches will be assaulted for an extended duration, leading to the prospect of severe erosion.
The center of the storm is forecast to pass well offshore of the Delmarva Peninsula later today, pass, well to the east of the New Jersey coast on Wednesday, and pass offshore of southeastern Massachusetts by Thursday.
The worst conditions are likely from eastern Long Island to eastern Massachusetts on Wednesday when these areas may get battered by the combination of heavy rain, damaging wind gusts to hurricane-force, and coastal flooding.
“Total [rain] accumulations of 3 to 5 inches are expected over eastern Long Island, southeast Connecticut, southern Rhode Island, and southeast Massachusetts, including Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket,” the hurricane center said.
It’s important to note that small changes in Jose’s track could increase or decrease the intensity of effects and how far they expand inland.
“Any deviation to the left of the Hurricane Center forecast track would increase the likelihood and magnitude of impacts elsewhere along the U.S. east coast from Delaware to southern New England,” the Hurricane Center said.
Irrespective of its track, dangerous surf and rip currents are expected along the East Coast through much of the week.
Brian Murphy and Colis Ferguson contributed to this report.