MIAMI (AFP) - Hurricane Maria strengthened to a Category Two storm on Monday (Sept 18) with winds of 175 kilometres per hour as it menaced Caribbean islands already hard-hit by megastorm Irma.
The US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) expected Maria to grow into a "major hurricane" - a Category Three - later on Monday with the French territory of Guadeloupe, the staging area for relief operations for several islands battered by Irma, in the crosshairs.
Warnings were also triggered for Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis and the British island of Montserrat.
As of 1200 GMT (8pm Singapore) the storm was swirling about 135km east of Martinique, according to the NHC, on track to barrel across the eastern Caribbean late Monday and into the night.
The agency said the storm could produce "a dangerous storm surge" along with "large and destructive waves" that could raise water levels by 1.5 to 2.1 metres when it cuts its path across the eastern Caribbean.
Guadeloupe was going on "red alert" Monday with schools, businesses and government offices ordered closed, as was neighbouring Martinique. Each has a population of around 400,000 people.
Maria is bearing down on the vulnerable island region just after Irma unleashed fury there, leaving some 40 people dead in the Caribbean before pounding Florida and killing at least 20.