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Hurricane Maria gains strength, bears down on Caribbean islands

Sept 18 (Reuters) - Hurricane Maria picked up strength and roared towards the Leeward Islands on Monday on a track that could whip several eastern Caribbean islands with their second powerful storm this month.

Maria, a Category 2 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, had maximum sustained winds of 110 miles per hour (155 km per hour) and was located about 85 miles (135 km) east of Martinique, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) advisory.

It was headed west-northwest at about 12 mph (19 kph) on a track that would put it over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by Wednesday.

Maria was expected to strengthen further in the next two days, becoming a major hurricane before it moves through the Leeward Islands, the center said. Major hurricanes are those of Category 3 and over, with sustained winds of 111 mph (178 kph) or more.

Hurricane warnings were in place for Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat, St. Lucia and the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Tropical storm warnings were in effect for Antigua and Barbuda and the Dutch Caribbean territories of Saba, St. Eustatius and St. Maarten, while Puerto Rico, the British and U.S. Virgin islands, and Anguilla were on a watch for hurricane conditions.

Several of those islands were devastated earlier this month when Hurricane Irma rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, killing more than 80 people on the islands and the U.S. mainland.

More than 1,700 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighboring Antigua after Irma damaged nearly every building there.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory which Irma grazed as it headed toward Cuba and Florida, has already begun preparations for Maria. The storm threatened an island already dealing with a weakened economy and fragile power grid.

Forecasters were also tracking Category 1 Hurricane Jose, with 85 mile per hour (140 kph) winds, which was located about 270 miles (440 km) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The eye of that storm was forecast to remain off the east coast of the United States for the next few days, bringing dangerous surf and rip currents to beaches from Delaware through Massachusetts. (Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)