The course for Maria beyond the weekend remains uncertain. Forecasts by the National Hurricane Center have the hurricane moving between Bermuda and the U.S. coast, but other weather systems will influence whether Maria strays closer to the Atlantic seaboard.
At 5 p.m. Friday, Hurricane Maria had winds of 125 mph, which made the storm a Category 3. It’s expected to slowly weaken in the coming days as it tracks north over cooler water and into less hospitable winds.
The storm was positioned 115 miles east-northeast of the Southeast Bahamas, far enough away for the islands to steer clear of the storm’s center and most violent conditions. But the storm’s outer bands could still generate up to 4 to 8 inches rain there. The storm may also brush the Central Bahamas Friday night into Saturday but should remain far enough east that the impacts are minor.
At the same time, the storm was moving away from the Turks and Caicos where conditions should improve overnight.
Most forecast models suggest that the storm will come close to but turn away from the East Coast next week. As the remnants of Hurricane Jose stall near New England, its counterclockwise winds will help push Maria to the east.
However, it’s still too soon to say Maria is not a threat to the East Coast and it may come uncomfortably close to the North Carolina Outer Banks by around Wednesday as Jose dissipates. The latest models runs have edged the storm’s track slightly closer to the coast.
It remains unlikely that the Outer Banks or other area of the East Coast will contend with severe hurricane conditions, but some rain and wind cannot be ruled between Tuesday and Thursday.
By late in the week, a strong dip in the jet stream will sweep the storm away from the U.S.
In any storm track scenario, dangerous surf and rip currents are likely along the East Coast beaches this weekend and into next week.
Maria devastates Puerto Rico
Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico on Wednesday, unleashing destructive winds, which knocked out power to the entire island, and “catastrophic” flooding.
The National Weather Service in San Juan reported incredible rainfall rates of up to 5 to 7 inches per hour Wednesday morning. The Hurricane Center described the flash flooding as “catastrophic.” Rivers on the island rose rapidly, some reaching record levels in a matter of hours.
On Thursday morning, 10 of 27 river gauges on Puerto Rico were reporting “major flooding” and flash flood warnings covered all but the southwest portion of the island.
As the storm made landfall early Wednesday morning along the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, a National Ocean Service tide gauge at Yabucoa Harbor, Puerto Rico, reported a rise of 5.3 feet above the normal high tide.
Wind reports became scarce by 8 a.m. as wind sensors and/or their transmission signals failed, but numerous locations clocked gusts over 110 mph, including in San Juan.
Effects in St. Croix and U.S. Virgin Islands
Early Wednesday morning, sustained winds reached 106 mph and gusts were reported up to 137 mph in St. Croix. Between 10 and 11 p.m. Tuesday, St. Croix’s airport on the southwest part of the island reported gusts up to 92 mph before the wind sensor stopped reporting.
While St. Croix was hit hard and damage was extensive, the storm’s inner eyewall containing its most violent winds just missed to the south — sparing the island the worst of its fury.
The storm passed even farther to the south of St. Thomas, but social media photos showed significant flooding on the island:
Hurricane Maria’s place in history
When Maria slammed ashore near Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday with 155 mph winds, it became the first Category 4 storm to directly strike the island since 1932. It was the first hurricane of any intensity to make landfall there since Georges in 1998.
Maria’s landfall pressure of 914 millibars in Puerto Rico was the third-lowest on a record for a hurricane striking the U.S. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.
On Tuesday evening, Maria’s pressure dropped to 909 millibars, ranking among the 10 lowest in recorded history in the Atlantic.
Its maximum sustained winds, which reached 175 mph, also ranked among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.
At 9:35 p.m. Monday, Maria became the first Category 5 storm to strike Dominica in recorded history, leaving behind widespread destruction.
In just 18 hours Monday, the storm strengthened from a minimal Category 1 storm to a Category 5 monster. Its pressure dropped 52 millibars in 18 hours, “one of the fastest deepening rates on record behind Ike, Rita, Gilbert, & Wilma,” tweeted Tomer Burg, an atmospheric science graduate student at SUNY-Albany.
Maria is the latest powerhouse storm in what has become a hyperactive hurricane season. The 2017 hurricane season has already featured four Category 4 or stronger storms; this has only happened four previous times by Sept. 18. Three of these storms made landfall in the U.S. at Category 4 intensity (Harvey, Irma and Maria), which is unprecedented in the modern record.
Brian Murphy contributed to this report.