By Jason Hanna, CNN
CNN – The cyclone Joaquin strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane in the Atlantic on Wednesday morning, poised to pound the central Bahamas with heavy rain and dangerous storm surges in the next day.
Its move after that — still hard to predict — could have flooding implications for an already drenched eastern United States.
Joaquin’s center was spinning 190 miles (305 kilometers) east-northeast of the central Bahamas. Its maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (130 kph) were mid-range for a Catergory 1 storm, but forecasters predicted it would become stronger.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the central Bahamas, with the storm’s center expected to be near or over the islands by Thursday before turning north, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
More than 10,000 people live on the Bahamian islands most squarely in the storm’s path. Five to 20 inches of rain could fall over much of the central Bahamas through Friday, with lesser amounts expected over the rest of the country, the center said.
“Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the hurricane center said about the Bahamas on Wednesday.
Rain and winds aren’t the only concerns: Dangerous storm surges — with water levels as high as 4 feet above normal tides — are possible on the Bahamian coasts.
Swells from Joaquin also will affect the southeastern U.S. coast by Friday, potentially creating life-threatening rip currents, the hurricane center said.
A US landfall?
A hurricane hasn’t made landfall in the eastern United States since Hurricane Arthur hit North Carolina in 2014. That could change with Joaquin.
Forecasters expect Joaquin to turn north after the Bahamas, but they have low confidence in predicting the path after that. Many U.S. computer forecast models predict a hit on the East Coast next week, anywhere from North Carolina to New York’s Long Island.
One European-based model predicts the storm going out to sea instead.
“We simply don’t know if it’s going to go left into America or right and pass Bermuda,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
The hurricane center said Joaquin could become a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 115 mph, in the Atlantic Ocean by Saturday after leaving the Bahamas. However, forecasters expect the hurricane to weaken and revert to a Category 2 shortly after that, the center said.
Significant rain possible for Mid-Atlantic next week
Landfall or not, Joaquin at the very least could send significant rainfall to the East Coast, where some states already were dealing with flood threats from separate systems this week.
“There is so much tropical moisture, we will get 10 inches of rainfall in the Mid-Atlantic (in the next seven days) — and that’s with a miss,” Myers said. “If we get a hit … that number may double.”
Heavy rains hit the Mid-Atlantic and New England this week, and 2 to 6 inches of rain were still expected to fall in New England on Wednesday.
Large portions of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine were under flood watches or warnings Wednesday afternoon.
Flooding made some streets impassable in Portland, Maine. Several cars were stalled on one street there after their drivers tried to drive through standing water, CNN affiliate WMTW reported.