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Battered Caribbean islands brace for approach of Tropical Storm Maria

Hurricane watches are in effect for several of the islands that were hit hard by hurricane Irma last week, including St. Martin, St. Barts, and Antigua and Barbuda.

Men carry bunches of banana on September 16, 2017 in Marigot on the French Caribbean island of Saint Martin after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma.

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HELENE VALENZUELA/AFP/Getty Images

Men carry bunches of banana on September 16, 2017 in Marigot on the French Caribbean island of Saint Martin after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — The islands of the eastern Caribbean prepared Sunday to face another potential disaster, with forecasters saying newly formed and strengthening Hurricane Maria was headed for a hit on the Leeward Islands by Monday night.

Hurricane or tropical storm warnings were posted for many of the islands, including those already coping with the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma, such as St. Barts and Antigua and Barbuda.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria was expected to gain power and likely would be near major hurricane strength while crossing through the Leeward Islands late Monday on a path aiming toward Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph) late Sunday. It was centred about 100 miles (165 kilometres ) northeast of Barbados and heading west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).

The hurricane centre 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 (1.2 to 1.8 metres ) near the storm's centre . The storm was predicted to bring 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimetres ) of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

It could make a direct hit on Puerto Rico, which was spared the full brunt of Irma, though power was knocked out to much of the island.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said officials had prepared about 450 shelters with a capacity for nearly 68,000 people — or even 125,000 in an emergency. He said schools were cancelled for Monday and government employees would work only a half day.

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

Meanwhile, long-lived Hurricane Jose was moving northward off the U.S. Atlantic Seaboard, kicking up dangerous surf and rip currents. It wasn't expected to make landfall but a tropical storm watch was posted for all of the coast from Delaware to Massachusetts' Cape Cod.

A boat is grounded amid rubble after the island of Saint Martin was hit by Hurricane Irma.

HELENE VALENZUELA/AFP/Getty Images

A boat is grounded amid rubble after the island of Saint Martin was hit by Hurricane Irma.

Jose was centred about 305 miles (490 kilometres ) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and was moving north at 9 mph (15 kph). It had maximum sustained winds of 90 mph (150 kph).

In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Norma's threat to Mexico's Los Cabos area appeared to ease. Forecasters said the storm's centre was likely to remain offshore.

Norma had winds of about 50 mph (85 kph) and it was centred about 140 miles (225 kilometres ) south-southwest of Cabo San Lucas. That area was hit two weeks ago by Tropical Storm Lidia, which flooded streets and homes and killed at least four people.

The Baja California Sur state government readied storm shelters and cancelled classes for Monday as well as calling off a Mexican Independence Day military parade in the state capital, La Paz.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Lee weakened into a tropical depression far out in the Atlantic while Otis strengthened into a hurricane out in the Pacific. Neither threatened land.

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