Hurricane Maria strengthens to Category 3 hours before landfall

Hurricane Maria is forecast to rapidly strengthen over the next two days as it takes aim at Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma just days ago.

(CNN) -- As feared, Hurricane Maria rapidly strengthened Monday as it took aim at Puerto Rico and islands left in ruins by Hurricane Irma.

Maria intensified to a Category 3 hurricane, hurling maximum sustained winds of 120 mph. The mammoth storm nearly doubled in strength over the past 24 hours and is expected to keep growing before it makes landfall.

As of 11 a.m. ET, Maria was centered about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Martinique. Its first landfall is expected around 8 p.m. ET in the northeast Caribbean's Leeward Islands -- specifically Dominica and Martinique.

And for the first time in 85 years, Puerto Rico is expected to suffer a direct landfall from a Category 4 hurricane. Puerto Rico's governor has declared a state of emergency ahead of that landfall, which will likely happen Wednesday.

"It's time to wrap up your preparations now, Puerto Rico," CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.

Scrambling in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico sheltered many of the evacuees who fled Hurricane Irma's wrath in other Caribbean islands. Now those evacuees and native Puerto Ricans are bracing for another catastrophic hurricane.

Issa Alexander barely survived Irma when that hurricane shredded his family's home in the British Virgin Islands. He evacuated to San Juan, Puerto Rico -- only to fear more devastation.

"I'm hoping that Maria doesn't come, but I don't know," said Alexander, 22.

He's terrified for relatives still in the British Virgin Islands -- especially because the lines of communication are still down.

"I don't even know if they know that it (Maria) is coming," Alexander said. "I can only hope that the same spirit that everybody has -- the same God that helped everybody to survive is still looking over them."

'More dangerous than Hugo and Georges'
Puerto Rico's governor ordered evacuations Monday ahead of Tuesday's deteriorating conditions.

"Our call is for people to evacuate areas that are prone to floods and landslides, in addition to vulnerable structures," Rosselló said.

"It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach 50 miles per hour."

Rosselló added that Maria's size means all of Puerto Rico will experience hurricane conditions.

If Maria strikes the island as forecast, it will be "more dangerous than Hugo and Georges," he said.

Hurricane Hugo killed five people in Puerto Rico in 1989, and Hurricane Georges caused more than $1.7 billion in damage to the island.

What to expect from Maria
Maria was closing in on the Leeward Islands on Monday, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) east of Martinique and 95 miles away from Dominica. At 11 a.m. ET, it was headed toward the islands at 10 mph.

Other Leeward Islands under hurricane warnings include St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Martinique, as well as St. Lucia.

"A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 5 to 7 feet above normal tide levels near where the center of Maria moves across the Leeward Islands," the National Hurricane Center said.

Up to 12 inches of rain -- and even 20 inches in some areas -- is expected to deluge the central and southern Leeward Islands through Wednesday night, the NHC said. Those islands include Puerto Rico and the US and British Virgin Islands.

"Rainfall on all of these islands could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," it said.

Hurricane Jose
Another hurricane, the Category 1 storm Jose, is also churning in the Atlantic.

While forecasters don't anticipate Jose making landfall in the US, it's still expected to cause "dangerous surf and rip currents" along the East Coast in the next few days, the hurricane center said.

On Monday morning, Hurricane Jose was about 270 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north at 9 mph.

"Jose is expected to produce total rain accumulations of 3 to 5 inches over eastern Long Island, southeast Connecticut, southern Rhode Island, and southeast Massachusetts, including Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, through Wednesday," the National Hurricane Center said.

Jose is expected to weaken in the next few days, but will likely remain a hurricane through Tuesday.

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