Maria will threaten lives and cause devastation in areas hit and missed by Irma's worst less than two weeks earlier.
This storm is predicted be far worse than the one that is coming for Puerto Rico according to Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather.
“There is no comparison between what Puerto Rico got before with Irma and what it will get this time with Maria,” he said. “This is a disaster in the making. All parties in Puerto Rico and the nearby islands need to know how serious this threat is. The damage done by wind gusts from the last storm (Irma) of 50 to 60 mph will pale in comparison to winds that may reach 140 from Hurricane Maria."
"It is possible that parts of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands may become uninhabitable for weeks or longer due to the destruction that Maria will cause," Myers said.
On Monday evening, Maria strengthened into a Category 5 hurricane with 160-mph (257-km/h) winds on its way toward the northeastern Caribbean Sea, making it the second Category 5 storm of the season.
The last time there were two or more Category 5 hurricanes in the same season was in 2007 when Dean and Felix occurred. Prior to this year, 2007 was also the last time two hurricanes made landfall as a Category 5.
Residents should prepare for widespread tree damage, days to weeks of power outages, structural damage and limited food and water at the hands of a major hurricane. Well-constructed homes may sustain major roof, window and siding damage.
"During Tuesday night and Wednesday, St. Croix, St. Thomas, Culebra, Vieques and Puerto Rico will take a direct hit and end up with much more damage, and perhaps catastrophic damage when compared to Irma," according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Alex Sosnowski.
Maria could sustain Category 5 strength with winds greater than 157 mph (253 km/h) as it crosses Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Homes, businesses and other structures will be significantly damaged or destroyed," Myers said.
In addition to winds from a major hurricane, Puerto Rico is bracing for widespread, life-threatening flash flooding and mudslides due to the islands steep terrain and the likelihood of more than a foot (350 mm) of rain.
"Total rainfall of 6-12 inches (150-300 mm) will be common on the islands of the northeastern Caribbean with local amounts topping 20 inches (600 mm)," Sosnowski said.
Coastal inundation from storm surge will reach 6-10 feet (1-3 meters) on some of the islands.
The size of the eye wall and core of the highest winds are much smaller, when compared to Irma. The intense winds only extend outward from the center by about 30 miles (48 km).
"The eye wall from Maria passed directly over Dominica Monday night," Sosnowski said.
"However, mostly tropical-storm-force winds were felt on the adjacent islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Montserrat from this small but intense hurricane."
As Maria encounters Puerto Rico, the structure of the storm may change. The hurricane may grow in diameter.
Small craft should remain in port and cruise and cargo ships should avoid the area with seas topping 25 feet (8 meters) in the vicinity.
"With Irma stripping much of the vegetation in the northern Leeward and Virgin Islands, there is a much greater risk of flash flooding and mudslides even if the eye wall of Maria passes by to the southwest," Sosnowski said.
Even a brush with the storm's outer spiral bands could cause more damage as debris will get tossed around, and any trees weakened by previous storms may get snapped.
Hurricane Irma illustrates how accurate forecasts, improved communication can help save lives during disasters
Cleanup efforts are likely to be hindered, while crews may be forced to suspend power restoration efforts.
The Dominican Republic and Haiti will feel the effects of Maria on Wednesday and Wednesday night. The island of Hispaniola will experience tropical storm conditions with torrential rain, dangerous surf and the potential for damaging wind gusts. Given the current forecast track, the worst conditions on Hispaniola will be in the Dominican Republic.
"Interaction with Puerto Rico could alter the track of the Maria," according to AccuWeather Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski.
"If Maria tracks farther southwest than expected, then conditions may be more severe not only in the Dominican Republic but also Haiti."
The severity of the situation over the areas devastated by Irma will depend on the storm's exact track. A wobble farther to the north would be another catastrophic blow to the British Virgin Islands and St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
Those that have been left homeless and do not have a means of leaving the islands will be at the mercy of the rain and wind. Debris can become flying projectiles during the storm, threatening to inflict bodily harm on anyone who is outdoors.
"After Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas will face major impact from Maria," Sosnowski said.
Residents in these areas should already be gathering non-perishable food, batteries, flashlights, water and other necessities in case of lengthy power outages.
Seas and surf will remain dangerous on the northern shores of the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola through Friday. Additional heavy, gusty squalls are also likely on these islands to end the week.
"AccuWeather estimates that Maria could reduce the GDP in Puerto Rico [$101.3 billion] by 10 percent by causing $10 billion in damage and have similar devastating impacts on other islands," Myers said.
Maria is predicted to cause major economic impacts in Puerto Rico:
A major hit to tourism, which makes up 6 percent of Puerto Rico's GDP as of 2006, is predicted by AccuWeather.
Devastation of crops is likely, as the agriculture sector is vulnerable to impacts from land-falling hurricanes. Agriculture makes up 0.8 of a percent of Puerto Rico's GDP.
While it is too early to say with certainty whether Maria will have a direct impact on the mainland United States, all interests along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and Canada should monitor the hurricane's progress during the coming week.
Meanwhile, Lee continues to struggle in the far eastern Atlantic and is not expected to impact land.
The tropical Atlantic is likely to remain active through much of October and into nearly the end of autumn.
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