Tropical Storm Rafael heads north of Virgin Islands, dumping heavy rain over eastern Caribbean

Tropical Storm Rafael churned away from the Virgin Islands early Sunday as forecasters warned the system could strengthen into a hurricane early in the week.

Rafael's was centered about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north-northwest of St. Martin at 5 a.m. EDT Sunday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. The storm had top sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph) and was moving north-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).

Forecasters said Rafael could become a hurricane by late Monday.

A tropical storm warning continued in effect for Anguilla early Sunday. But forecasters said a tropical storm warning has been discontinued for the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat and St. Martin, among other places.

Forecasters said a tropical storm watch has been discontinued for Puerto Rico.

Rafael could dump rainfall between 3 and 5 inches on some islands and possibly up to 10 inches in isolated spots over the lesser Antilles and the Virgin Islands. Potentially heavy rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, particularly in mountainous terrain, the hurricane center said. It also warned of possibly dangerous surf in some areas.

Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 175 miles (280 kms) from the center of the system, mainly to the northeast and east, forecasters said.

Interests in Bermuda have been urged to monitor the storm's progress as it moves away from the Virgin Islands and the Northern Leeward Islands.