POINTE-À-PITRE • Hurricane Maria strengthened yesterday as it blasted towards the eastern Caribbean, a region already struggling to recover from megastorm Irma.
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said Maria had intensified to a Category 2 storm as it approached the French territory of Guadeloupe, the base for relief operations for several islands hit by Irma this month.
Guadeloupe was on "red alert" yesterday with schools, businesses and government offices ordered to close, as was neighbouring Martinique, which is also part of France. Each has a population of around 400,000 people.
The hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 175kmh according to the NHC, is expected to hit Guadeloupe by midnight Singapore time.
It was expected to strengthen further into a Category 3 "major hurricane", the NHC warned.
Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis and the British island of Montserrat are also on alert.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb warned in Paris on Sunday that "we will have major difficulties" if Guadeloupe is hard hit, noting the territory was "the logistical centre from where we could supply St Martin and organise all the airlifts". Irma killed 15 people on St Martin, an island shared by France and the Netherlands.
Officials in Guadeloupe predicted severe flooding in low-lying areas and urged residents to move to higher ground.
France, Britain and the Netherlands have been criticised for the pace of relief efforts and for struggling to contain lawlessness in their overseas territories amid widespread shortages of food, water and electricity after Irma.
But in Guadeloupe's capital Pointe-a-Pitre, local official Josette Borel-Lincertin said the authorities had ample experience in preparing for hurricanes.
"We have a culture of risk, we know what needs to be done," she said.
Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, left around 40 people dead in the Caribbean before churning west and pounding Florida, where at least 20 people were killed.
Tropical storm warnings were in place in Antigua and Barbuda, Saba and St Eustatius, and St Lucia.
The tiny island of Barbuda was decimated by Hurricane Irma on Sept 5 to 6 when it made its first landfall in the Caribbean as a top-intensity Category 5 storm.
The NHC said Maria could produce a "dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves" that would raise water levels by 1.2m to 1.8m when it passes through the eastern Caribbean.
It also forecast maximum potential rainfall of 51cm in the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands through tomorrow night.
A second hurricane, Jose, is also active in the Atlantic and has triggered tropical storm warnings for the north-eastern United States.