SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Hurricane Earl battered tiny islands across the northeastern Caribbean with heavy rain and roof-ripping winds Monday, rapidly intensifying into a major Category 4 storm on a path projected to menace the United States.
Already dangerous with sustained winds of 135 mph, Earl is expected to gain more strength before potentially brushing the U.S. East Coast this week and bringing deadly rip currents.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami warned coastal residents from North Carolina to Maine to watch the storm closely.
''Any small shift in the track could dramatically alter whether it makes landfall or whether it remains over the open ocean,'' said Wallace Hogsett, a meteorologist at the center. ''I can't urge enough to just stay tuned.''
In the Caribbean, Earl caused flooding in low-lying areas and damaged homes on islands including Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Maarten. Several countries and territories reported power outages. Cruise ships were diverted and flights canceled across the region.
''We are getting a battering with wind and rain,'' said Martin Gussie, a police officer in Anguilla. Several utility poles were down and a couple of roofs had blown away, and it was still too dangerous to go out and assess the full extent of damage, he said.
The storm's center passed just north of the British Virgin Islands on Monday afternoon. It was gradually moving away from the Caribbean and was forecast to approach the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region around Thursday, before curving back out to sea, potentially swiping New England or far-eastern Canada.
The Hurricane Center said it was too early to say what effect Earl would have in the U.S., but warned it could at least kick up dangerous rip currents. A surfer died in Florida and a Maryland swimmer has been missing since Saturday in waves spawned by former Hurricane Danielle, which weakened to a tropical storm Monday far out in the north Atlantic.
Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Earl's approach ought to serve as a reminder for Atlantic coastal states to update their evacuation plans.
''It wouldn't take much to have the storm come ashore somewhere on the coast,'' Fugate said. ''The message is for everyone to pay attention.''
The rapid development of Earl, which only became a hurricane Sunday, took some islanders and tourists by surprise.
Wind was already rattling the walls of Lila Elly Ali's wooden house in Anegada, the northernmost of the British Virgin Islands, when she and her son went out to nail the doors shut Monday.
''They say the eye of the storm is supposed to come close to us, so we've just got to pray. Everyone here is keeping in touch, listening to the radio,'' the 58-year-old said by phone from the island of 280 people.
Also Monday, Tropical Storm Fiona formed behind Earl in the Atlantic east of the Leeward Islands.