By Michael Martinez and Ed Payne CNN
(CNN) — A ferocious Hurricane Joaquin apparently won’t make U.S. landfall, but it could send historic floods to the East Coast this weekend, prompting four states to declare emergencies.
“This is not just any rain,” Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina said. “This is going to be the heaviest rain we have ever seen.”
She urged residents to stay out of low-lying areas and urged them to avoid traveling because authorities expect power outages lasting a few days and massive flooding. National Guardsmen and more than 150,000 sand bags were on standby.
Scenarios of potential flooding will develop Friday night through the weekend as Joaquin roars out of the central Bahamas and begins its northerly trek. Virginia and North Carolina already have endured flooding this week.
Perhaps the only good news is that the Category 3 hurricane, with 125 mph winds, isn’t expected to directly touch the mainland as it travels over the open Atlantic. Joaquin weakened from a Category 4 status with 130 mph winds, the National Hurricane Center said.
The distance, however, won’t stop the storm from sending waves reaching 20 feet, high winds and an ocean surge up to 12 feet that promises widespread coastal flooding.
Joaquin threatens historic floods in the Carolinas and other inundations to the Southeast, which could see up to 20 inches of rain, with South Carolina bearing the brunt of flooding, CNN meteorologists say.
Meanwhile, flash-flood watches extended from Atlanta to near New York City, affecting tens of millions.
Ships in distress
Meanwhile, a container ship which crew includes 28 Americans is missing near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin.
The ship El Faro, carrying the Americans and five others, was still missing near the Bahamas after the U.S.-flagged ship sent a distress signal a day earlier to the U.S. Coast Guard, the agency said Friday.
A C-130 airplane searched for the vessel but was unable to make contact, said Coast Guard Capt. Mark Fedor.
Another rescue mission was successful: On Thursday night, the Coast Guard helicopter lifted 12 sailors from their sinking 212-foot cargo ship besieged by Joaquin and listing 51 miles northwest of Haiti, the guard said. The crew members were in a life raft and belonged to the Bolivian-flagged cargo ship Minouche.
The path of Joaquin
Early Friday, Joaquin essentially stalled over the Bahamas for a second morning. It began moving northward later in the day, the National Hurricane Center said.
The latest tracking maps show the powerful Category 4 storm staying well offshore after it leaves the island chain, which is expected to happen sometime late Friday or early Saturday.
What’s not going away is the rain for the already waterlogged region.
Moisture from Joaquin is being pumped into a weather system stalled along the coast.
“We’re looking at historic flooding in coastal South Carolina,” said CNN meteorologist Rachel Aissen. Ten to 15 inches of rain are expected.
Charleston will be especially hard hit, but heavy rain will penetrate all the way inland to Columbia, more than 100 miles away.
Gov. Haley declared a state of emergency in anticipation of major flooding.
Friday night football games were moved up a day over flooding concerns in the state’s Lowcountry region. Others were postponed.
Not just South Carolina
Flood advisories and warnings stretch from North Florida to Connecticut and as far west as parts of West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The governors of New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia joined South Carolina in issuing their own states of emergency.
“I don’t think we’re going to see wind impact,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said, “but we’re going to see flooding impact. We have all of this tropical moisture, and it’s going to get sucked into the Carolinas, into Virginia, maybe even into Georgia, and that will cause flooding.”
The Appalachian Mountains could get soaked because of the interaction between Joaquin and a low-pressure system over the southeastern United States, according to Myers.
The moisture created from those two systems could then flow down from rivers into cities, creating the potential for significant flooding in some areas.
Along Virginia Beach’s Atlantic Avenue, a main thoroughfare about two blocks from the ocean, business owners appeared to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
There were no boarded-up windows. Stores remained open, but there were only a few customers.
Beach towns in October can be that way.
There was no panic at the Sunsations beach shop.
“We’re usually fine here,” said Sharlotte Castillo, “maybe a little rain, but we’re staying open.”
Even as far north as Waterbury, Vermont, Skip Flanders was keeping an eye out. He’s seen firsthand from 2011’s Hurricane Irene that the heavy rains from a huge tropical system like this can have devastating effects far from the coast.
“We had 28 inches of water in our house from Irene,” Flanders told CNN affiliate WCAX. “I certainly hope that something of that proportion doesn’t happen again.”
Battering the Bahamas
The storm’s “extremely dangerous conditions” are expected to continue over portions of the Bahamas on Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Extensive flooding was reported, with up to 3 feet of standing water in some areas. Winds are 130 mph. Rainfall is expected to be about 12-18 inches over the central Bahamas, but some areas could see as much as 25 inches, the Hurricane Center said.
“We are closely monitoring Nassau now to see where the storm is at first light … since that is where the majority of the population is located,” said Basil Dean of the Bahamas Department of Meteorology. “Freeport, Grand Bahama, Eleuthera and other tourist areas are also being closely monitored.”
CNN’s Nick Valencia, Devon Sayers, Shawn Nottingham, Greg Botelho, Joshua Berlinger and Michael Martinez contributed to this report.