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Hurricane Maria became a Category 3 storm Monday as it continued to churn toward the Leeward Islands in the eastern Caribbean, a path forecasters said was likely to threaten Puerto Rico – perhaps becoming the worst storm to hit the island since 1928.

Maria strengthened into a hurricane Sunday, and forecasters said it was expected to become much stronger during the coming hours, following a path that would take it extremely close to many of the islands already ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

The National Hurricane Center said in its 11 a.m. update Maria had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph Monday, and was centered about 150 miles east-southeast of Dominica — or 195 miles east of Martinique — and heading west-northwest at 10 mph.

"Additional rapid strengthening is forecast during the next 48 hours, and Maria is expected to be a dangerous major hurricane as it moves through the Leeward Islands and the northeastern Caribbean Sea," the NHC said.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the U.S. Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Martinique. A tropical storm warning was issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Lucia. Other islands were warned to stay alert for changes in the storm. Hurricane watches were issued for Puerto Rico, the island shared by French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten and St. Barts. A Tropical Storm Warning was issued for Anguilla.

Fox News Meteorologist Adam Klotz said Monday that Maria was expected to strengthen to eventually a Category 4.

All of the islands that just saw Irma "are about to see another round of a pretty major hurricane," Klotz said.

The NHC said hurricane conditions should begin to affect parts of the Leeward Islands by Monday night, with storm surge raising water levels by 4 to 6 feet near the storm's center. The storm was predicted to bring 6 to 12 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

Maria could make a direct hit on Puerto Rico, which was spared the full brunt of Irma, although much of the island had its power knocked out. Gov. Ricardo Rossello said officials had prepared about 450 shelters, which have a capacity for nearly 68,000 people — or even 125,000 people in an emergency. Rossello said schools were cancelled Monday and government employees would work only a half day.

In Adjuntas, located about 15 miles from the island's southern coast, the mayor said the news of Maria's potential approach felt "like a cold water bath" because Irma’s damages to his municipality spawned floods.

Mayor Jaime Barlucea told the Primera Hora newspaper people are vulnerable because of the "strong currents" of river water.

"It is understood that this event is going to bring a lot of water and we are scared in that sense," Barlucea said.

The numerous zinc roofs on residences across the island are also a concern if Maria brings winds in excess of 100 mph.

"I will repeat what we did previously, is to use loudspeakers for communities to ask people not to stay in their homes if they are made of wood and zinc, which is almost 40 percent of the structures in Comerío," the mayor of Comerío, Jose A. Santiago, told Primera Hora.

Officials in the neighboring Dominican Republic urged people to leave areas prone to flooding and said fishermen should remain in port.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Lee weakened into a tropical depression far out in the Atlantic, and is not set to threaten land.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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