Hurricane Maria has battered the US Virgin Islands as the “monster” storm bears down on Puerto Rico, bringing “catastrophic” 160mph winds and dangerous storm surges.
The second maximum-strength storm to hit the Caribbean this month has already killed at least one person in Guadeloupe and devastated the tiny island nation of Dominica, where 90 per cent of buildings are reportedly destroyed.
Maria began lashing the US Virgin Island of St Croix early on Wednesday, as it continued to cut a deadly north-westerly path through the Atlantic.
It is set to make landfall in Puerto Rico at around 1pm BST. The US territory’s 3.5 million residents have been urged to seek shelter amid fears heavy rain could cause landslides and storm surges of up to 9ft could swamp low-lying areas.
Watch live: Track path of Hurricane Maria
Officials in Puerto Rico – a haven for people fleeing other storm-hit Caribbean islands in previous weeks – also fear debris left by Hurricane Irma could prove dangerous during Maria’s winds.
Governor Ricardo Rossello described Maria as “the worst storm of the last century”.
Maria had maximum sustained winds of 90mph as its outer eyewall began to lash the US Virgin Island of St Croix at 6am BST on Wednesday before moving west.
Describing the storm as “potentially catastrophic”, the US National Hurricane Center said: “Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Maria is forecast to remain an extremely dangerous category four or five hurricane until it moves near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”
Maria has already claimed one life, as officials on the French island of Guadeloupe confirmed a person was killed by a falling tree, and another two are missing after their boat sank.
The storm is following a similar path to Irma, one of the most powerful in decades, and relief workers raced to secure loose debris that have the potential to make Maria more hazardous if picked up by high winds.
Damage on the British Virgin Islands is unclear after Maria skirted past early on Wednesday.
“Our islands are extremely vulnerable right now,” the territory’s premier Orlando Smith said in a statement, warning that the storm could turn debris left by Irma into dangerous projectiles.
A hurricane warning was also in place for Montserrat, with a hurricane watch applied to Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos islands.
After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria is due to pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday.
Maria comes just days after the region was hit by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record and left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands.