Hurricane Maria: ‘Significant’ strengthening likely as storm nears land

(CNN) — Hurricane Maria is forecast to rapidly strengthen over the next two days as it takes aim at Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma just days ago.

“Significant strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Maria is expected to become a dangerous major hurricane before it moves through the Leeward Islands,” according to the National Hurricane Center’s latest update.

In its 5 a.m. update, the hurricane center placed Maria about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Martinique and about 130 miles (215 east-southeast) of Dominica.

The storm is currently a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 90 mph, and is forecast to continue moving toward the eastern Caribbean at 13 mph.

“Maria is likely to be at category 3 or 4 intensity by the time it moves into the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea,” the center said in its forecast.

Maria is one of three storms churning in the Atlantic Ocean, but it poses the most danger to the hurricane-battered Caribbean.

“On the forecast track, the center of Maria will move across the Leeward Islands late today (Monday) and tonight and then over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea Tuesday and Tuesday night,” the NHC said.

Maria has prompted a hurricane warning for Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat.

A tropical storm warning is in effect for Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Lucia. A warning is typically issued 36 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds.

A hurricane watch has now been extended to Puerto Rico and its islands Vieques and Culebra. A watch was earlier put in place for the US Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Barthelemy and Anguilla — many of which were devastated when Irma blew through the Caribbean, killing 44 people. A hurricane watch is typically issued 48 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds.

Torrential rainfall could cause deadly flash flooding and mudslides on islands that it crosses. Maria could dump 6 to 12 inches of rain across the Leeward Islands — including Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands — through Wednesday night.

Hurricane Jose

Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose has weakened slightly as it churns north, but is sill threatening “dangerous surf and rip currents” along the US East Coast in the next few days, the hurricane center said.

Early Monday, the Category 1 hurricane was about 280 miles (450 kilometers) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and moving north at 9 mph.

“Maximum sustained winds have decreased to near 85 mph (140 km/h) with higher gusts. Some gradual weakening is expected during the next couple of days, however, Jose is forecast to remain a hurricane through Tuesday,” the NHC said.

While the center of Jose is expected to stay off from the US East Coast, “swells generated by Jose are affecting Bermuda, the Bahamas, and much of the US east coast,” the NHC said.

“These swells are likely to cause dangerous surf and rip current conditions for the next several days in these areas.”

Tropical storm watches are in place for portions of the eastern coast of the US stretching between Delaware and Massachusetts.

The hurricane center said that Jose would produce heavy rain as it passes near southern New England and the mid-Atlantic on Tuesday and Wednesday, but that based on current forecasting the risk of flooding would be “limited in scope.”

Tropical Depression Lee

Lee, the third storm in the Atlantic, fizzled from a tropical storm to a tropical depression Sunday, the hurricane center said.

As of Monday morning, Lee was about 1,060 miles (1,710 kilometers) west of Cape Verde.

Lee’s maximum sustained winds have sputtered to 35 mph, and are expected to further weaken in the coming days.