Joaquin becomes Category 1 hurricane

Posted at 8:00 AM, Sep 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-30 11:00:55-04

The Atlantic 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 at least have flooding implications for an already drenched eastern United States.

Joaquin intensified from a tropical storm before 8 a.m. Wednesday, its center churning 245 miles (395 kilometers) east-northeast of the central Bahamas. Its maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph) were just above hurricane threshold, but forecasters predicted it would soon become stronger.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the central Bahamas, with the islands expected to experience tropical storm-like winds Wednesday and hurricane conditions by noon Thursday, 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 15 inches of rain could fall over the country's San Salvador and Rum Cay through Friday morning, and up to 5 inches could fall over the rest of the central Bahamas, 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 U.S. 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 Meyers said.

Significant rain possible for Mid-Atlantic

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," Meyers said. "If we get a hit ... that number may double."