(Storm winds pick up, path is erratic, forecast center says)
Sept 24 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Karen gained strength on Tuesday as it barreled toward Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands nearby, with powerful winds picking up speed and torrential rainfall threatening flash floods and mudslides.
The storm's erratic path veered to the west but was expected to resume a northward tack, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a mid-afternoon update. A warning was issued for Puerto Rico and both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Officials on Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory still recovering after being devastated Hurricane Maria two years ago, urged residents to be ready to seek shelter if they live in homes likely to be flooded by the storm.
Karen's center was approaching Puerto Rico and expected to pass near or over land on Tuesday afternoon before moving into the western Atlantic Ocean, the center said.
Storm winds intensified to 45-miles-per-hour (72 kph) winds. The weather system was expected to dump 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) of rain on the island, with some areas getting more than 8 inches (20.3 cm), the NHC said.
Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced urged residents to use caution and stick to their family emergency plan.
"It's important that everyone determine if you live in a vulnerable area and if so you should go to a shelter," Garced said in a post on Twitter.
Earlier in the week, the storm brought floods and destroyed property on other Caribbean islands, including Trinidad and Tobago, according to video images that showed people using shovels to try and clear mud-covered roadways.
Flash-flood watches and warnings across Puerto Rico said its eastern and southern regions would be the hardest hit, especially the hills and mountainous areas, which faced the risk of serious mudslides and floods.
Karen, the 11th named storm of the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season, formed on Sunday afternoon east of the Lesser Antilles.
Puerto Rico, beset with financial woes and political turmoil, was spared a potential new disaster last month when Hurricane Dorian skirted past it before laying waste to the northern Bahamas.
Two years ago, Puerto Rico was still recovering from Hurricane Irma when it took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. Some 3,000 people perished in that storm, the deadliest in the island's recorded history. (Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Trotta and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)
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