The past several weeks have seen a string of devastating hurricanes make landfall, bringing heavy winds, torrential rainfall, and leaving a trail of destruction. First, Hurricane Harvey swept up from the Gulf of Mexico and battered the greater Houston area with record-breaking floods. Then, Hurricane Irma hit the state of Florida, to similarly dire effect. And now, another major storm is moving through the Caribbean ― the latest predictions for Hurricane Maria, suffice to say, are very concerning.
Make no mistake, while it's not yet clear if Maria will actually make it to the U.S. mainland, it's already taken a horrible toll. On Monday, it unexpectedly grew in strength, becoming a Category 5 hurricane before slamming into the Caribbean island nation of Dominica. The prime minister of the relatively tiny island, Roosevelt Skerrit, commented after the storm passed that Dominica has "lost all that money can buy," and that he feared what would be found when the full scale of the damage was revealed.
My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.
In short, it's an awful situation, and one that some other island nations and territories also need to worry about. As it stands now, according to the latest projections from the National Hurricane Center, Maria is expected to hit the U.S. Virgin Islands sometime early Wednesday morning, and then move into Puerto Rico at about 8 a.m. local time. By 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, it's expected to move along the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic before twisting northwards towards The Bahamas.
It's important to note that this is all based on the NHC's latest forecast, and predicting massive weather events like these can sometimes be tricky and unreliable. With the storm having already raged through Dominica, however, and it's next landfall seemingly less than 24 hours away, Maria's immediate path is now somewhat easier to predict.
In short, if you or anyone you know live in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, or even the Dominican Republic or Haiti, it's worth taking safety precautions now, to whatever extent you can. It's totally unclear whether the U.S. mainland will be at all threatened by Maria, although the NHC forecast seems to doubt it ― it shows Maria twisting away to the north rather than approaching the southeast American coast.
That said, Maria has already proven itself to be an unpredictable and surprising storm. Less than 24 hours ago, it was classified as a Category 3 hurricane, a designation that means its wind speeds were measured between 111 miles per hour and 129 miles per hour. But by the time it hit Dominica on Monday evening, it had gained a startling amount of strength, getting bumped up to a Category 5.
A Category 5 hurricane is one with wind speeds in excess of 156 miles per hour, and there's one valuable thing to know about them: there's no such thing as a Category 6. The Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale has been in use by storm trackers for decades, first devised in 1971, and put into public use two years later.
In other words, in a mere matter of hours, Maria gained a great deal more destructive power than was predicted, and that had a devastating effect on Dominica. At the time of this writing, Maria is still rated as a Category 5 storm. Hopefully it loses some of that power before arriving in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but based on how things look right now, this could be a truly nightmare scenario for their residents.