Powerful Category 5 Maria slams Caribbean just weeks after Irma

Many across the eastern Caribbean have just barely begun to pick up the pieces after Irma devastated the region less than two weeks ago. Maria underwent a period of explosive intensification on Monday, doubling in intensity from a Category 1 storm with winds of 80 mph to a Category 5 with winds of 160 mph in less than 24 hours.

Last night, Maria became the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the island of Dominica in recorded Atlantic history, with winds of 160 mph. While not as strong as Irma's peak of 185 mph winds, Maria is still expected to cause widespread devastation as she continues her journey through the islands of the eastern Caribbean.

After briefly weakening to a Category 4 storm after passing over the island of Dominica, Maria quickly regained Category 5 strength Tuesday morning as the storm reemerged into very warm ocean waters. Maria now appears to have her sights set on the U.S. and British Virgin Islands as well as Puerto Rico, where a landfall is possible as early as tomorrow morning.

Depending on how exactly the storm tracks over the next 12-24 hours will determine whether or not Maria is able to maintain her Category 5 status as she approaches the island. Regardless, the combination of wind, rain, and storm surge is still expected to cause potentially catastrophic damage as the storm approaches tomorrow morning.

After Puerto Rico, the question then becomes where will hurricane Maria go next? Similar to hurricane Irma, Maria is forecast to at least make a close pass to the island of Hispaniola. If it passes too close, the high elevation of the islands interior could help disrupt the structure of the storm and help it to weaken. If not, water temperatures north of the island remain in the low to mid 80s, which is actually little cooler than the waters south of the island. This may help Maria weaken a little as well, at least down from Category 5 status. However both the National Hurricane Center and many hurricane forecast models show the storm maintaining major hurricane status (category 3+) as she approaches the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday.

This is the critical point in the forecast period for Maria…the turn. A ridge of high pressure is expected to develop in the eastern Atlantic, expanding southward across the Caribbean as Maria vacates. This is expected to help turn the storm more to the north, and eventually to the north and east and turn the storm out to sea. Unlike Irma, there seems to be more model agreement that this will be the likely track. However, like Irma, we know that weather model guidance is imperfect in the extended range. So is it too early to say locations along the U.S. East Coast are safe from Maria? I believe it is.

This weekend there is a strong area of high pressure setting up just south of the Great Lakes. Models weaken this feature as Maria turns northward, but if this feature remains stronger than expected and interacts with Maria it could slow the storm down (similar to Jose) a perhaps bring Maria closer to the United States, before an upper level through swinging through the Midwest late next workweek finally gives it the boot. This is far from the favored scenario given most modeling is turning out to sea, but is simply an example of how the track could potentially change in the future. The point? It is worth keeping an eye on, and we will do just that for you.

The FOX 5 Weather Team will continue to bring you updates as the latest data becomes available.

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