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Tropical Storm Maria forms in the Atlantic, heads for the Leeward Islands

Tropical Storm Maria has formed over the Atlantic Ocean and is forecast to strengthen into a major hurricane as it moves towards the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, U.S. forecasters say. Hurricane watches have been issued.

As of 5 p.m. ET on Saturday, Maria was located about 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles. Its maximum sustained winds have increased to 50 miles (85 kilometers) per hour, making it a tropical storm.

"Satellite images indicate that the system located several hundred miles east of the Lesser Antilles has become much better organized throughout the day," said John Cangialosi, a hurricane specialist at the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). "The low-level center of circulation is now well defined, and banding features have become better established in all quadrants."

Cangialosi explained that environmental conditions are favorable for steady or even rapid strengthening during the next 3 to 4 days, which will make Maria a hurricane on Sunday and potentially a major category 3 hurricane by Wednesday afternoon.

Maria is forecast to move towards the northeastern Caribbean over the next few days, and the center of the storm could reach the Leeward Islands on late Monday or early Tuesday morning. The Leeward Islands were already devastated by Hurricane Irma, which hit the region as a major category 5 storm.

A hurricane watch was issued on Friday afternoon for Antigua, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, and Montserrat. A tropical storm watch has been issued for St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, and Barbados.

"Maria could also affect the British and U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by mid week as a dangerous major hurricane, and hurricane watches could be issued for these islands as early as Sunday," Cangialosi said. "Interests in these areas should monitor the progress of Maria and follow any advice given by local officials."

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