Maria becomes a hurricane as it moves towards the Caribbean

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Tropical Storm Maria has strengthened into a hurricane as it moves towards the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, U.S. forecasters say. Further strengthening is likely and Maria could become a major category three hurricane.

As of 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, Maria was located about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northeast of Barbados, or 275 miles (445 kilometers) southeast of Dominica. Its maximum sustained winds have increased to 75 miles (120 kilometers) per hour, making it a category one hurricane.

The center of Maria is expected to reach the Leeward Islands on late Monday afternoon, at which time it will likely be a category two hurricane. Further strengthening is forecast as it moves towards Puerto Rico, where it could make landfall as a dangerous category three hurricane.

“The [Hurricane Hunter] aircraft data indicates that Maria has a compact circulation, which could make it a prime candidate for significant intensification in an environment of low shear and warm sea surface temperatures,” said Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

A hurricane warning is in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, Saint Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat, while a hurricane watch is in effect for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Saba, St. Eustatius, the entire island of Saint Martin, St. Barthelemy, and Anguilla. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Martinique, Antigua, Barbuda, and St. Lucia.

After reaching Puerto Rico, Maria is forecast to impact the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday before moving towards the Bahamas on Friday. It is too early to determine whether the hurricane poses a threat to Florida, but unofficial weather models suggest Maria will likely stay off the coast of Florida.

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