Hurricane Maria has developed into a Category 3 storm as the Caribbean's Leeward Islands prepare for impact. It is expected to bring dangerous winds, rain and storm surges to other, already damaged islands.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Maria was "rapidly" intensifying into a major hurricane as it headed towards the eastern Caribbean.
"The center of Maria will move across the Leeward Islands on Monday night, over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Sea Tuesday and Tuesday night, and approach Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Wednesday," the agency said.
Many of the islands in Maria's path are still recovering from the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma
Warnings have been issued for the French territory of Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, St Lucia, and the US and British Virgin Islands. Several of those islands were already devastated by Hurricane Irma earlier this month.
The NHC said Maria was packing maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kilometers per hour) and could produce "a dangerous storm surge" that could raise water levels by six to nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters).
In Dominica, schools and government offices were shut, while officials ordered people to evacuate and seek shelter. "We should not take this storm lightly," Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said. "Let us continue to pray for our safety."
Authorities in Guadeloupe, meanwhile, warned that many communities would experience heavy flooding overnight. The Puerto Rican government said it had opened some 450 shelters to house people evacuated from nearby islands.
Maria comes less than two weeks after Irma, a Category 4 hurricane, swept through the Caribbean, killing more than 80 people and causing massive destruction before pounding the US state of Florida.
Elsewhere, a tropical storm warning was issued for a stretch of New England on the US east coast where Hurricane Jose is generating dangerous ocean swells and currents. Five people were injured after they were knocked off a jetty in Rhode Island by big waves caused by the Category 1 storm. Jose is expected to remain offshore and slowly weaken as it moves in a northward direction off the US Atlantic coast.
cw,nm/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)