Hurricane Joaquin strengthens to Category 3, expected to cross Bahamas beginning Thursday

Hurricane Joaquin’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Wednesday.
Hurricane Joaquin’s projected path as of 11 p.m. Wednesday. WEATHER UNDERGROUND

Bahamians were battening down for Hurricane Joaquin, which is expected to bring heavy rain, pounding surf and powerful gales to large swathes of the island chain as early as Thursday morning.

But the bigger concern remained where the still-strengthening storm would head next after an expected sharp turn to the north in the next few days. Florida, according to computer models, remained out of danger, but much of the rest of the heavily populated Eastern Seaboard from South Carolina to New York will be anxiously watching Joaquin’s path through the weekend.

The National Hurricane Center shifted the long-range forecast path away from the New Jersey shore to a potential landfall as early as Sunday along the mid-Atlantic coast. But forecasters stressed that confidence that many days out remained low and it wasn’t clear yet whether Joaquin would even make landfall.

“The range of possible outcomes is still large, and includes the possibility of a major hurricane landfall in the Carolinas,’’ the NHC advisory said.

As of the National Hurricane Center’s 11 p.m. Wednesday advisory, the storm was 90 miles off San Salvador in the Bahamas, strengthening to a Category 3 storm and packing sustained winds of 115 mph. Hurricane winds extended 35 miles. Tropical storm force winds reached out 140 miles.

In the Bahamas, forecasters say Joaquin could dump between five and 10 inches of rain over much of the central islands, with as much as 20 inches possible over San Salvador and Rum Cay through Friday night. Three to five inches are possible over the southeastern Bahamas through Friday, forecasters said.

Hurricane warnings have been issued for Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, Rum Cay, San Salvador, the Abacos, Berry Islands, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island and New Providence. A hurricane watch is in effect for Andros Island and Bimini.

While no models show Joaquin striking Florida, differences in the computer projections make the storm’s future path less certain, forecasters said. Most shifted the path to the west Wednesday, putting the storm on track to come ashore in the mid-Atlantic region, possibly in the Carolinas. But another reliable model still shows the storm heading just west of Bermuda and out to sea.

Forecasters said it was too early to talk about potential impacts to the U.S. but much of the coastline could expect to see at least minor flooding from heavy surf as well as heavy rain. With some areas still saturated from past storms, Joaquin could also increase inland flooding threats.

Joaquin is the first major threat to the East Coast since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which came ashore just north of Atlantic City and ultimately caused $75 billion in damage, making it the second costliest storm in U.S. history.

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich

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