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Maria devastates Dominica, heads to Puerto Rico

The Caribbean has been hit by another Category 5 hurricane which now has other islands in its sights.

Residents in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Dominica is the latest Caribbean island to suffer at the hands of a Category 5 hurricane.

The tiny, mountainous, volcanic island - home to about 73,000 people - felt the full force of Maria around 01:00 GMT on Tuesday. Sustained winds were in excess of 250 kilometres per hour (km/h).

This is the first Category 5 hurricane to hit Dominica in records stretching back to 1851. The last time the island suffered a major hurricane was in 1979 when Hurricane David was responsible for the deaths of 40 people.

On the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, Category 5 winds cause "catastrophic" damage: "A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse … most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

There are no wind reports to back up these satellite-derived winds, as wind anemometers across the island ceased reporting before Maria's landfall.

Dominica was extremely unlucky to suffer a direct hit from Maria, as this is a much smaller cyclone than Hurricane Irma, which devastated other parts of the Caribbean earlier in September.

Maria's eyewall is just 15km in diameter, and the hurricane force winds expend across a 60km diameter, centred on this eyewall.

It will be some time before a proper assessment of Maria's impact can be made.

In the meantime, Maria is heading towards more island communities.

It remains a Category 4 system, with sustained winds of almost 250km/h, taking to the very top of Category 4 limits. 

Maria underwent a dramatic intensification from a Category 1 to a Category 5 in just 24 hours. There is the possibility that it could even return to a Category 5 before it strikes the islands of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico all within the next 24 hours.

The problem facing the whole region is that sea surface temperatures (SST) are several degrees Celsius above average. These warm waters provide the energy for hurricane development.

Latest predictions from the US National Hurricane Center keep Maria as a Category 4 system as it hits the US Virgin Islands at around 08:00 GMT on Wednesday and Puerto Rico at 12:00 GMT that same day.

Because of the relatively compact nature of Maria, there is a good chance that it will pass to the south of the British Virgin Islands, although the islands are under a "hurricane watch".

The likely impact on both the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico include catastrophic winds, a storm surge of between two and three-and-a-half metres, surf and rip currents and rainfall of up to half a metre. Such vast amounts of rain could well result in mudslides and flash floods in such a mountainous island as Puerto Rico.

After that, Maria's track tends to curve to the right, taking it to the northeast of the Bahamas, but close enough to bring some rain and rough seas.

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