UPDATE 1 – Maria strengthens into an ‘extremely dangerous’ category 4 hurricane

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Hurricane Maria rapidly intensified on Monday, becoming an “extremely dangerous” category 4 storm as it reached the northeast Caribbean, U.S. forecasters say. Additional strengthening is possible over the next few days.

As of 5 p.m. ET on Monday, Maria was located about 45 miles (70 kilometers) southeast of Dominica, or 35 miles (55 kilometers) northeast of Martinique. Its maximum sustained winds have increased to 130 miles (215 kilometers) per hour with gusts up to 160 miles (260 kilometers) per hour.

“Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye,” said Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center. He added that atmospheric and oceanic conditions are favorable for rapid strengthening through Tuesday, during which it could become a category 5 hurricane.

Tropical storm conditions were already occurring over parts of the Leeward Islands on Monday afternoon, and hurricane conditions are expected to spread across Dominica, Guadeloupe, and Martinique later in the day. Its storm surge will be accompanied by “large and destructive” waves, according to forecasters.

After moving through the Leeward Islands, the center of Maria is expected to pass off the coast of the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday as it heads towards Puerto Rico, where it could make landfall on Wednesday as a category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 150 miles (240 kilometers) per hour.

Interaction with land in Puerto Rico will likely cause the hurricane to weaken, but Maria is expected to remain a major hurricane while it passes the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday. The storm could affect the Bahamas later in the week as it turns towards the north, which should keep it away from Florida.

As of Monday afternoon, a hurricane warning is in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Antigua, Barbuda, and St. Lucia. A hurricane watch is in effect for Saba, St. Eustatius, the entire island of Saint Martin, St. Barthelemy, and parts of the Dominican Republic.

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