Tropical Storm Maria formed in the Atlantic Saturday afternoon, threatening to pound islands already hit hard by Irma with another hurricane early next week.
In an 8 p.m. update, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Maria will likely bring dangerous winds, more storm surge and heavy rain to parts of the Lesser Antilles and strengthen into a hurricane Sunday, then approach the Leeward Islands on Monday. On Saturday evening, hurricane watches were issued for Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat and Guadeloupe. Tropical storm watches were issued for other islands in the chain.
By midweek, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico could again face fierce winds. The Coast Guard captain of the Port of San Juan warned that sustained gale force winds greater than 39 miles per hour may arrive within 72 hours, and advised pleasure craft “to seek safe harbor.”
It’s not yet clear what impact Florida and the U.S. might face from the storm. Model projections so far out can often be hundreds of miles off. But an early run of the European model — which reliably tracked Irma — takes the storm toward Florida.
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Saturday night, the storm was located about 590 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles and was moving west at 19 mph. Sustained winds reached 50 mph.
The system became much better organized throughout Saturday, forecasters said, as it moved over warm tropical waters and encountered light wind shear. Air around the storm is also very moist. Those conditions shouldn’t change in the coming days, they said, likely allowing Maria to continue to pick up steam.
The storm is now moving along the outside of a high pressure ridge. But that ridge is expected to weaken. That should slow the storm and cause it to head to the northwest.
In his Saturday blog, Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said the storm could approach the U.S. by next week.
Masters said the storm’s path could be influenced by Hurricane Jose, currently hundreds of miles east of Florida and moving toward the coast of New England. If Jose weakens the high pressure ridge steering the storm, it could allow Maria to head more to the northwest or north-northwest, he said. If not, the storm will likely keep heading to the west-northwest.
A fall trough moving across the U.S., he said, could also strengthen a ridge in the northeast, preventing the storm from moving out to sea.
Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich