Caribbean@ (Recasting with storm upgraded to Category 4; ranks as fourth major Atlantic hurricane this year; on course to pummel island nation of Dominica)
BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sept 18 (Reuters) - The fourth major Atlantic hurricane of the year, Maria, gathered strength on Monday as it churned through the eastern Caribbean, bearing down on the tiny island nation of Dominica while on a likely collision course with the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
Maria was upgraded to a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as its maximum sustained winds reached 130 miles per hour (215 km per hour), with stronger gusts, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) reported. It is possible that Maria could reach Category 5 status, NHC warned.
The center of the storm located about 45 miles (72 km) east-southeast of Dominica as of 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT) and expected to pass very close to island later in the evening, on a track that would put it over Puerto Rico by Wednesday, according to NHC forecasts.
Dominica, a heavily forested former British colony home to 72,000 people, lies in the eastern Caribbean about halfway between the French islands of Guadeloupe, to the north, and Martinique, to the south.
At its current strength, Maria would be the first Category 4 storm to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years, Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said. The last major hurricane to strike the island territory directly was Georges, which made landfall there as a Category 3 storm, he said.
The governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rossello, urged island residents in a social media advisory to brace for the storm's arrival, saying, "It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend or head to a state shelter."
Puerto Rico narrowly avoided a direct hit two weeks ago from Hurricane Irma, which reached a rare Category 5 status and ranked as the most powerful Atlantic storm on record before devastating several smaller islands, including the U.S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John.
Maria is forecast to continue intensifying over the next day or two and it will remain "an extremely dangerous major hurricane," the NHC said.
Residents of some islands fled in advance of the storm.
Beth Tamplin Jones, 45, rode out Hurricane Irma earlier this month in the pantry of a friend's house in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"It was so intense," said Jones, who evacuated from St. John to Puerto Rico last week and then caught 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, referring to Irma, which killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland. "I don't think anybody's ever been hit by a storm like that. To see another one coming is just so discouraging."
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents not to underestimate the threat from Maria, or its potential to change track. "Just remember this is a live animal," he said.
The island of St. Croix appeared to be in the path of hurricane-force force winds, with nearby St. Thomas and St. John seeing tropical storm-force winds, Mapp said, adding, "given the current conditions of St. Thomas and St. John, that's not good."
Maria was expected to whip up storm surges - seawater driven ashore by wind - of up to 9 feet (2.7 m) above normal tide levels, the NHC said. Parts of Puerto Rico could see up to 25 inches (64 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.
Puerto Rico opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to Maria's high winds.
Forecasters also were tracking Category 1 Hurricane Jose, packing 75-mph (120-kph) winds and located about 250 miles (405 km) east of North Carolina, and stirring dangerous surf and rip currents to much of the U.S. Eastern seaboard.
Maria marks the 13th named Atlantic storm of the year, the seventh hurricane so far this season and the fourth major hurricane - defined as Category 3 or higher - following Harvey, Irma and Jose, the NHC said. Those numbers are all slightly above average for a typical season, which is only about half over for 2017. (Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Richard Lough in Paris; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)