BREAKING: Hurricane Maria threatens North and Central America

Evacuation orders have been issued for parts of Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria heads toward the island.

Maria, now a Category 3 hurricane, is forecast to rapidly intensify to a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 mph as it approaches Puerto Rico late Wednesday morning.

Maria might make landfall on the eastern side of Puerto Rico and could bring major damage to the U.S. territory late Wednesday morning and into the afternoon, two weeks to the day since Hurricane Irma tore through Puerto Rico, killing at least three.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said starting midday Tuesday, conditions will begin to deteriorate and the island could get between 12 and 18 inches of rain.

Officials said 450 shelters will be opened starting this afternoon and warned of possible catastrophic damage and a possible collapse of the “vulnerable” electrical system.

“Flood-prone areas must be abandoned,” said Public Security Secretary Héctor Pesquera. “If not, you will die.”

The governor said a federal emergency declaration was requested.

Most models are forecasting Maria will stay away from Florida and the United States mainland.

Today Maria is churning in the Atlantic Ocean and is set to travel across the Caribbean, likely affecting islands including the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, on its way towards Puerto Rico.

It was just weeks ago when Irma devastated several Caribbean islands, killing at least 39 people.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) warns that “Maria is likely to strengthen significantly and is expected to be at major hurricane intensity when it affects portions of the Leeward Islands over the next few days, bringing dangerous wind, storm surge and rainfall hazards.”

As Maria approaches, the Antigua and Barbuda government is warning residents not to be complacent post-Irma.

Philmore Mullin, the head of the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, spoke to Antigua and Barbuda’s national broadcaster ABS today, urging those in low-lying areas to evacuate and not to wait until the last minute since water can sometimes rise very quickly.

Mullin added that they are prepared and over 40 shelters will be opened for Maria.

“We cannot afford to be complacent — it is a hurricane,” Mullin said. “We need to pull out all the stops and prepare for an impact just in case.”

After passing Puerto Rico this week, Maria is expected to graze the Dominican Republic before it moves north toward Turks and Caicos and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean

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