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BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sept 18 (Reuters) - A string of eastern Caribbean islands faced their second major storm of the month on Monday as Hurricane Maria barreled toward them with 120 mile-per-hour (195 kph) winds, heavy rains and dangerous storm surges.
Officials on islands from French-controlled Martinique to the U.S. Virgin Islands warned residents to prepare for the storm, upgraded to a major Category 3 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale by U.S. forecasters.
Maria was located about 60 miles (95 km) east of Martinique, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT). It was headed west-northwest at about 10 mph (17 kph) on a track that would put it over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by Wednesday.
Streets were flooded in some residential parts of the island of Barbados, which had been experiencing heavy rain since Sunday as the storm approached.
Some island residents fled the ahead of the storm. Among them was Beth Tamplin Jones, 45, who rode out Hurricane Irma earlier this month in the pantry of a friend's house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"It was so intense," said Jones, who evacuated from St. John to Puerto Rico last week and then got a flight to Atlanta, where she planned to remain until Maria passed.
"We're in hurricane alley, so we've had other storms, but nothing like this," Jones said. "I don't think anybody's ever been hit by a storm like that. To see another one coming is just so discouraging."
Maria was expected to bring storm surges - seawater driven ashore by wind - of up to 6 feet to 9 feet (1.8-2.7 m), the NHC said. Parts of the central and southern Leeward Islands could see as much as 20 inches (51 cm) of rain, it said.
Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were in effect for a string of islands in the area, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda and the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin.
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.
Meteo France issued a red alert for Martinique. Businesses were ordered to shut down, public transport services suspended and residents told to take shelter in their houses.
"The risks are enormous given the winds we expect. To go outside in these conditions is to play with death," Lieutenant Colonel Michael Bernier, a senior civil defense agency official in Martinique, told BFM TV.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory which Irma grazed as it headed toward Cuba and Florida, opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to Maria's high winds.
"It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach 50 miles per hour," Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told reporters on Monday.
More than 1,700 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighboring Antigua after Irma damaged nearly every building there.
Forecasters were also tracking Category 1 Hurricane Jose, which packed 75-mph (120-kph) winds and was located about 265 miles (430 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 from Delaware through Massachusetts. (Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Richard Lough in Paris; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alistair Bell)