MIAMI >> Hurricane Earl has become a major hurricane in the Caribbean, reaching Category 3 status with maximum sustained winds near 120 mph.
Also, a new hurricane warning has been issued today for the Puerto Rican islands of Culebra and Vieques.
Earl has been lashing the northeastern Caribbean with heavy rain and strong winds, causing flooding in low-lying parts of the Leeward Islands as it gains strength on a course that could threaten the eastern United States later this week.
The hurricane is about 95 miles east-northeast of St. Thomas and is moving west-northwest near 15 mph.
“It is possible that Earl could become a Category 4 hurricane as we get into the middle to late portions of the week,” hurricane center specialist Michael Brennan said. Category 4 storms have sustained winds of at least 131 mph.
The storm’s forecast track would carry its center north of the Caribbean, then forecasters say it is likely to bend to the north, moving roughly parallel to the U.S. East Coast. The hurricane center said it is early to say what impact if any Earl would have on the U.S.
In Antigua, powerful wind and rain destroyed at least one home and at least eight people had to be evacuated, though there were no reports of critical injuries. Emergency response officials said about 350 people were in shelters. Local weather authorities reported at least 5 inches of rain and 10-foot waves.
In St. Maarten, the storm toppled trees and knocked out electricity to much of the island but there were no reports of serious damage. Heavy gusts of wind swirled debris across streets that were empty due to a government-imposed curfew.
Alisha Daya, a 24-year-old tourist from Milwaukee, said she wore earplugs Sunday night but still had trouble sleeping because of the noise from the wind and crashing waves at the Oyster Bay Beach Resort in St. Maarten.
“It was loud because we were right on the ocean,” said Daya, who said the storm will keep her and her parents and boyfriend from leaving the island as planned on Monday although the worst seemed to have passed. “Some furniture is flying around, but everything seems to be OK.”
Cruise lines diverted ships to other ports in the Caribbean and Mexico as a customary precaution for tropical weather. Antigua’s V.C. Bird International Airport closed, and regional airlines LIAT and Winair suspended flights.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, St. Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius, the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 50 miles from its center.
Earl has grown rapidly in strength, fueled by warm ocean temperatures of 86 F.
Earl could bring battering waves and storm surges of up to four feet above normal on some islands, as well as downpours that threaten to unleash flash floods and mudslides.
Forecasters say there is a chance the hurricane could brush the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region toward the end of the week, with its closest approach to North Carolina on Friday.
In any case, the U.S. East Coast is likely to see pounding surf.
“Folks from the Carolinas northward through the Mid-Atlantic and New England need to be paying attention to Earl and the forecasts as they get updated through the week,” Brennan said.
Meanwhile, the Category 1 Hurricane Danielle was weakening far out over the north Atlantic.