Tropical Storm Maria continued to become stronger and better organized overnight and is expected to become a hurricane today as it heads toward islands battered by Irma.
Over the next three days, National Hurricane Center forecasters say Maria will likely intensify to a major Category 3 storm with sustained winds topping 125 as it nears the Lesser Antilles and the Virgin Islands. It could weaken slightly, but then regain strength as it approaches Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The storm is expected to be near the Leeward Islands Monday.
It’s too soon to tell Maria’s impacts to Florida or the U.S. coast. Early models show the storm moving toward Florida and up the east coast, but forecasts so far in advance can be hundreds of miles off.
At 8 a.m. Sunday, Maria was located 410 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles with sustained winds of 65 mph. The storm was moving west-northwest at 15 mph. Tropical storm force winds extended 60 miles from Maria’s center.
St. Martin and St. Bart’s, both pounded by Irma, were added Sunday to the list of islands now under hurricane watches. They include Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Saba, St. Eustatius and Anguilla.
Last week, Irma’s ferocious Category 5 winds left a wake of destruction that damaged more than 90 percent of the buildings on Barbuda and forced all its residents to flee. On St. Martin, residents are wondering if it’s even possible to rebuild.
Forecasters say Maria is facing conditions eerily similar to the path Irma took — low wind shear, a warm ocean, and very moist air — and warned the storm could intensify even more than they’ve so far projected.
Maria is being steered by a high-pressure ridge to the west-northwest. That ridge is expected to weaken in the next three days, which could slow the storm but keep it headed in the same direction.
As it nears the coast, Hurricane Jose, now about 400 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras and headed toward the New England coast, could play a factor in where Maria goes. If Jose weakens the ridge steering the storm, it could allow Maria to take a track more to the northwest or north-northwest. If not, the storm will likely keep heading to the west-northwest.
Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said an autumn trough moving across the United States could also prevent the storm from moving out to sea.
Forecasters are also watching Tropical Storm Lee, located nearly 800 miles west-southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands. Lee is expected to weaken to a depression by Tuesday and so far poses no threat to land.