SAN JUAN – Hurricane Maria, the second maximum-strength Atlantic storm of the season, is bearing down on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The category five tempest has already inflicted “widespread damage” on the Caribbean island of Dominica.
It briefly weakened to a four but is now again packing top sustained winds of 265km/h (165mph).
The storm is moving roughly along the same track as Irma, this season’s other category five hurricane.
Local officials said one person was killed by a falling tree in the overseas French territory of Guadeloupe.
At least two others were missing after their ship sank near Desirade, the easternmost island in the archipelago.
The governor of Puerto Rico, a US territory, has told the island’s 3.5 million people to seek shelter as the hurricane is poised to make landfall overnight.
Officials there fear the debris left by Irma earlier this month could now prove extremely dangerous in the winds of Maria.
As the hurricane struck in the middle of the night it has been difficult to assess the extent of the damage so far.
The French territory of Martinique has been hit by power cuts but is thought to have escaped serious damage.
Images show flooding in Guadeloupe while there are reports of flooding, mudslides and power outages in parts of St Lucia.
Jacques Witkowski, the head of French civil security, told reporters in Paris that it was too soon to assess the damage in Guadeloupe.
But local government officials in the French territory described weather conditions as “very bad” with violent winds.
About 80,000 homes were without power there, a government statement said.
A storm surge – rising seawater coming in from the coast – is expected to bring “life-threatening” swells of up to 9ft (2.7m) above ground in the US and British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, National Hurricane Center forecasters said.
Heavy rainfall of around 25in (63cm) was expected near Puerto Rico and up to 20in in the US and British Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico’s public safety commissioner, Hector Pesquera, issued a stern warning to island residents.
“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” he said. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said there were 500 shelters that could house more than 100,000 people.
Mr Rossello warned the storm could be “devastating and catastrophic”, adding that he expected to lose a lot of infrastructure, he told CNN.
He added the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on hand to bring drinking water and help to restore power after the storm.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St Eustatius, St Martin, Anguilla and Martinique.