POINTE-À-PITRE: Hurricane Maria barreled towards the storm-battered eastern Caribbean and was expected to strengthen on Monday as it churned along a path similar to that of megastorm Irma earlier in the month.
The new storm, which the US National Hurricane Center warned could become a “major hurricane”, threatens the French territory of Guadeloupe, which was the staging area for relief operations for several islands hit by Irma.
Guadeloupe was to go on “red alert” Monday with schools, businesses and government offices ordered closed.
Warnings were also triggered for Dominica, St Kitts, Nevis, the British island of Montserrat and France’s Martinique.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb warned in Paris on Sunday that “we will have major difficulties” if Guadeloupe is hard hit, noting that the territory “was the logistical center from where we could supply Saint Martin and organize all the air bridges.”
Fifteen people died from Irma on Saint Martin, an island shared by France and the Netherlands.
Officials in Guadeloupe predicted severe flooding in low-lying areas and urged people living there to move to higher ground.
France, Britain and the Netherlands have been criticized for the pace of relief efforts and failure to contain lawlessness in their overseas territories amid widespread shortages of food, water and electricity after Irma.
‘Culture of risk’
But in the Guadeloupe capital Pointe-a-Pitre, local official Josette Borel-Lincertain said authorities had ample experience preparing for hurricanes.
“We have a culture of risk, we know what needs to be done,” she said.
Collomb said an additional 110 soldiers would be deployed to the region to reinforce some 3,000 people already at work tackling security problems, rebuilding infrastructure and supplying food and water to hurricane-hit islanders.
He said up to 500 more people could be sent if needed.
The Category Five Irma left around 40 people dead in the Caribbean before churning west and pounding Florida, where at least 20 people were killed.
As of 0600 GMT, Maria was a Category One hurricane, the lowest on the five point Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 90 miles per hour (150 kph) winds.
The storm was about 145 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Barbados and moving at 13 mph (20 kph), the NHC said.
Martinique was placed on “orange alert” from Monday with high seas and heavy rain expected to cause flooding. Schools and universities will be closed, authorities said.
Tropical storm warnings were in place in Antigua and Barbuda, Saba and St Eustatius, and St Lucia. The tiny island of Barbuda was decimated by Hurricane Irma September 5-6 when it made its first landfall in the Caribbean as a top intensity Category Five storm.
The NHC said Maria could produce a “dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves” that will raise water levels by four to six feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) when it passes through the eastern Caribbean.
It also forecast a maximum potential rainfall of 20 inches (51 centimeters) in the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands through Wednesday night— conditions that could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.
A second hurricane, Jose, is also currently active in the Atlantic and has triggered tropical storm watches for the northeastern United States.
Hurricane Irma broke weather records when it sustained winds of 295 kilometers per hour (183 miles per hour) for more than 33 hours.
Many scientists are convinced that megastorms such as Irma and Harvey before it are intensified by the greater energy they can draw from oceans that are warming as a result of global climate change. AFP