With the storm producing maximum sustained winds of 160 mph, hurricane warnings were in effect for Puerto Rico, its satellite islands of Culebra and Vieques, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the hurricane center said Monday night.
At 11 p.m. ET, Maria was about 360 miles east-southeast of San Juan, the Puerto Rican capital, and about 310 miles southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was expected to hit the Virgin Islands by Tuesday afternoon and Puerto Rico late Tuesday into early Wednesday, the hurricane center said.
With hurricane-force winds likely to continue across both territories for as long as 24 hours, forecasters said, Maria was shaping up late Monday to be even more destructive than Hurricane Irma, which killed at least 70 people across the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States beginning in late August.
"These winds will bring catastrophic damage," the agency warned. In tandem with rain as heavy as 18 inches and storm surges forecast as high as 9 feet, conditions could leave parts of the U.S. territories "uninhabitable for weeks or months," it said.
Kenneth Mapp, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, suspended all Irma recovery efforts to shift the focus to preparing for Maria, while President Donald Trump declared states of emergency in both territories on Monday. The Coast Guard said it was moving personnel, cutters and aircraft in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to protect them from Maria and to position them for quick search-and-rescue missions.
The French government declared a red cyclone alert Monday for parts of Martinique, telling residents to seek shelter and to stay put. All flights at Pointe-à-Pitre airport were suspended through Tuesday afternoon at the earliest, it said.
The British government, meanwhile, advised against all travel to the British Virgin Islands, saying it was extending the deployment of more than 1,300 military personnel already in the region to help with recovery from Irma.
"Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye," the National Hurricane Center said Monday — a sure sign of a particularly powerful storm.