SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Dorian strengthened into a hurricane Wednesday afternoon as it lashed the British and US Virgin Islands and neared eastern Puerto Rico, threatening floods and landslides in some areas that were hard hit two years ago by Hurricane Maria.
The storm's center was near the island of St. Thomas around 2 p.m. ET, with maximum sustained winds of around 75 mph, just above minimum hurricane strength, the National Hurricane Center said.
Dorian's center may avoid Puerto Rico and slide just to its east late Wednesday afternoon, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said. But it still could dump 4 to 10 inches of rain in a matter of hours in parts of that island and the British and US Virgin Islands.
"It has danced a little bit north," CNN meteorologist Dave Hennen said of the storm's path. "The worst of the wind and the rain, too, is probably going to be in the Virgin Islands."
Dorian's wind speeds won't approach those of Maria, the Category 4 storm that left more than 2,900 people dead in Puerto Rico. But they could be enough to strain Puerto Rican power infrastructure still in tenuous condition since the 2017 storm, Myers says, and spread misery across a territory where blue tarps still cover some of the holes that Maria ripped in homes' roofs.
Later this week, Dorian may strengthen over Atlantic waters and approach Florida or other parts of the southeastern US coast over the Labor Day weekend as a Category 3 hurricane, the hurricane center forecast late Wednesday morning. It's still far too early to know exactly where or when the storm, considered a major hurricane at that predicted strength, could hit the US mainland.
Dorian's projected path has shifted significantly over the past day. The storm once was projected to swing south of Puerto Rico and rumble over the Dominican Republic. The forecast now anticipates the center missing Hispaniola altogether, though the Dominican Republic still could get tropical-storm rain and winds.
Puerto Rico prepares for impact
In the city of Ponce on Puerto Rico's southern coast, people still have tarps over their homes owing to damage Maria wrought, Mayor Maria "Mayita" Melendez told CNN. The city was hit with $1 billion in damages from Maria, she estimates.
Dorian's rains easily could worsen a still-fragile reality, Myers said.
"There's already so much damage on the ground from (Maria) that this isn't going to take a lot to make a significant amount of damage, especially flooding," he said.
The tin roof over Lucy Beascochea's home still has holes in it, meaning every time it rains, water leaks in, she told CNN Tuesday. She is nervous about the approaching storm, she said.
Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced on Monday declared a state of emergency for the island and urged people to prepare for the storm.
"For citizens who do not yet have safe roofs, we will have shelters ready," Vázquez said on Twitter.
Schools across Puerto Rico are closed Wednesday.
"Thankfully, I've been preparing since May," said Krystle Rivera, whose family has been stocking up on water, canned food and gas in anticipation of the hurricane season.
By Wednesday morning, about 23 shelters were available across the island, but only about 40 people had arrived to use them, Puerto Rico Emergency and Disaster Management Commissioner Carlos A. Acevedo Caballero said.