Category-1 strength winds bend palm trees as Hurricane Dorian slams into St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Picture: Cassandra Crichlow via Reuters

San Juan - President Donald Trump lashed out at Puerto Rico on Wednesday, calling it "one of the most corrupt places on earth" before an approaching hurricane skirted the US territory, stirring up memories of previous devastating storms.

Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from back-to-back hurricanes in 2017 that killed about 3 000 people soon after the island filed for bankruptcy. On Wednesday it escaped fresh disaster as Hurricane Dorian avoided the territory and headed northwest toward Florida.

Dorian is expected to become a major hurricane that could do severe damage by the time it reaches the US coast late Sunday or early Monday, NHC forecasts show.

But as it passed Puerto Rico, the storm was blowing winds far less strong than when Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017.

Trump, who approved an emergency declaration for the island late on Tuesday evening, fired off a verbal broadside against Puerto Rico's leaders on Twitter early on Wednesday.

"Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt. Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten, and it is sent to Crooked Pols. No good!" Trump wrote.

Trump has a history of disputes with Puerto Rico's leaders, after coming under heavy criticism for a tepid response to the 2017 disasters on the island of more than 3 million people.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz hit back at Trump on Twitter on Wednesday, urging him to "get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground. Maybe Trump will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES."

Earlier in the day, Dorian ploughed through the US Virgin islands and Culebra, an island belonging to Puerto Rico, data from the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) showed.

By Wednesday evening, it was clear Dorian would not hit Puerto Rico, although Ernesto Morales of the territory's National Meteorological Service told a news conference it could cause heavy rain and possible flooding on the main island.

The NHC said Dorian was blowing maximum sustained winds of 130 km/h some 60 miles north-northwest of San Juan, making it a Category 1 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity.

BAD HISTORY

Two years ago, Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricane Irma when Maria struck, destroying roads and bridges and leaving much of the Caribbean island without electricity for months.

The US response to Maria became highly politicised as the Trump administration was criticised as being slow to recognise the extent of the devastation and in providing disaster relief. Trump later disputed Puerto Rico's official death toll.

Hogan Gidley, a White House deputy press secretary, accused Puerto Rican authorities on Wednesday of misusing taxpayer funds in the 2017 hurricanes.

"The money we sent down there, we now know, several on the ground have been indicted for misusing that money, giving it to politicians as bonuses, watching that food rot in the ports, the water went bad," he told reporters.

Puerto Rican public schools will be closed again on Thursday and public workers have been instructed to stay home.

Earlier this week, Democrats in the US Congress criticised Trump for shifting $271 million earmarked for disaster aid and cyber security to pay for detention facilities and courts for migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, described the shift as "stealing from appropriated funds."

As Dorian moved northwest, preparations were mounting in the Bahamas, which could be hard hit.

Jeffrey Simmons, the country's acting director of the Department of Meteorology, said severe weather could strike the southeast Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday, and the Central and Northwest Bahamas on Saturday and Sunday.

A US Air Force base in Cape Canaveral, Florida, home to the largest spaceport in the United States, entered the early stages of hurricane preparations on Wednesday. 

Reuters