JACKSONVILLE — The US mainland should not breathe a sigh of relief just yet despite early forecasts that Hurricane Maria will remain out to sea.
Regaining strength overnight, Maria lashed the Dominican Republic early Thursday after a destructive rampage through Puerto Rico and Dominica.
The storm is a Category 3 hurricane packing winds of 115 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The current forecast does not show a direct hit on the East Coast, forecasters say, but such a path cannot be ruled out this far in advance.
Moving away from Puerto Rico, it’s bringing high winds and heavy rain to the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, the hurricane center said.
It will then march on to the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday.
But tracking models are good for three to five days, and anything beyond that is hard to forecast, according to CNN meteorologist Michael Guy.
A five-day span shows Maria meandering off the US East Coast, but it’s unclear what happens afterward, he said.
Whether the eye of the storm will hit the East Coast is a waiting game, he said. And even if it does not make landfall, the East Coast will be affected in some way.
“Most likely it will bring a chance of rain to the Mid-Atlantic up through Massachusetts depending on how close it gets to the coast,” Guy said.
“Regardless there will be high surf, dangerous rip currents and breezy, windy conditions up the East Coast of the US.”
Those who live from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, should monitor the storm for any changes, he added.
While the number of areas affected will be much clearer as Maria gets closer, Florida could see rough surf and riptides from Melbourne up through Jacksonville.
“Once we have a definitive forecast on where Maria will go after the next five days — then we can be sure if we are in the clear,” Guy said.
Those on the US mainland can thank Tropical Storm Jose for possibly keeping Maria at bay.
Jose will stall off the coast of southeast New England for the next several days due to two high pressure systems, so that Maria will stay away from the United States, forecasters say. At the same time, Jose has spurred a tropical storm warning for parts of coastal Massachusetts, and high surf and rip currents are possible along the East Coast.
The long-range forecast shows Maria will push Jose out of the way and fill up the space it leaves in between the two highs while meandering off the US East Coast, Guy said.
But the storm and elements in the atmosphere could change and steer things differently, he said.
Hurricane Maria showed no mercy when it barreled through Dominica, killing at least 14 people.
The Caribbean island nation of 73,000 residents is known for its lush greenery, punctuated by waterfalls and rain forests. But nearly two days after Maria made landfall, an aerial survey showed trees snapped and strewn across the landscape, and the island stripped of vegetation.
The rain forests appear to have vanished, with roofs torn away, homes ripped open and debris littering areas like confetti.
From there, it wandered off to Puerto Rico, knocking out power in the US territory and devastating an island undergoing a long recession.
Restoring power could take months, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said.