Authorities warned Puerto Ricans to evacuate or die as Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to threaten the region in almost 90 years, barreled toward the U.S. territory.
Maria, a Category 5 storm — the strongest there is — killed one person and injured two other people as it roared through the island of Guadeloupe on Monday night. At 2 a.m. ET Wednesday, its maximum sustained winds were at 165 mph as it churned about 20 miles from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 85 miles from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It was expected to pass very near the Virgin Islands on its way straight toward Puerto Rico at about 10 mph, on track for arrival by Wednesday morning or midday, before skirting just north of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said.
"Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months," the hurricane center warned.
Maria should weaken as it crosses Puerto Rico, but it's expected to remain a Category 4 storm as late as Friday night, forecasters said. As far as destruction is concerned, the distinction is immaterial, said Orelon Sidney, a meteorologist for The Weather Channel, who said, "Whatever a 5 can do, a 4 can do."
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told reporters Tuesday that Maria "promises to be much more devastating" than was Hurricane Irma, which killed at least 70 people as it plowed through the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States earlier this month.
"If you are in a flood zone, your life is in danger," Rosselló said. "If you are in a wooden house, your life is in danger."
Héctor Pesquera, Puerto Rico's commissioner of public safety, was even more blunt.
"You have to evacuate — otherwise, you are going to die," he said, according to Telemundo, NBC's Spanish-language network. "I do not know how to make this any clearer."
President Donald Trump has declared states of emergency in both territories, and the Coast Guard has moved all its ships, aircraft and personnel out of harm's way so they can quickly launch rescue missions once the storm passes, officials said.
Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you- will be there to help!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2017
Hurricane warnings also went up in the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.
The last time the region was threatened by a storm this powerful was in 1928, when the Okeechobee Hurricane roared through the Virgin Islands and slammed Puerto Rico. It killed more than 300 people there and left a trail of destruction from one end of the island to the other before heading on to Florida.
In the end, it wound up being one of the deadliest hurricanes on record to hit North America, killing more than 4,000 people — most of them poor black residents who lived near Lake Okeechobee in South Florida and whose bodies were buried in mass graves.
But back then, Puerto Rico had a population of less than 1.5 million and was largely rural. Today, the population is nearly 3.5 million. And it's still feeling the effects of Irma, which at its worst point cut off power to more than 1 million people.
"I am personally without electricity since last night," San Juan resident Monica Morales said by telephone. "Some people had their power out since before it passed, and they still haven't had it restored."
With several days to prepare, many Puerto Ricans stocked up on supplies, boarded up their homes and headed once again for shelters and higher ground.
Morales, 48, the mother of two children, said she would ride out the storm with her parents and brother at a home in Rio Piedras.
"Everybody's tense. The streets are a little crazy now," she said. "The streetlights aren't working. Gas stations — the ones that do have gas, the lines — are incredible. People are like a little bit crazy, panicked."
Maria roared through Dominica and Guadeloupe overnight. One person was killed by a falling tree on Guadeloupe and two other people were still missing after a boat disappeared off the coast, authorities said.
In Dominica, the 72,000 or so residents were digging out after the storm.
"Initial reports are of widespread devastation," Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit reported on his Facebook page. "So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace."
Skerrit reported Monday night that he'd had to be rescued from his own home, the roof of which was blown off.
"Dominica had very little time to prepare for this monster... the strongest storm of their lifetimes," said NBC News meteorologist Bill Karins, who highlighted that Maria was one of the fastest-growing hurricanes ever recorded.
The French island of Martinique, which at one point appeared poised to take a direct hit from Maria, also sustained heavy damage, authorities said.
It's only the second time in recorded history that two Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in a hurricane season, Karins said. The last time that happened in the Atlantic basin was in 2007, when Dean and Felix killed 174 people in Mexico and Central America. They were so destructive that both of their names were retired.