MIAMI (AP) — Hurricane Joaquin intensified Wednesday as it approached the small, sparsely populated islands of the eastern Bahamas on a projected track that would take it near the U.S. East Coast early next week.
Maximum sustained winds reached 85 mph (135 kph) and extended 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the center of the storm over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, which predicted Joaquin would develop into a major hurricane in the coming days.
Authorities in the Bahamas prepared for a brush with the storm, with the center expected to pass near several eastern islands. Forecasters were still gathering data to determine how it would affect the U.S.
“We’ve got Air Force reconnaissance planes continuously giving us data from inside the hurricane this morning, and we’re going to be throwing a lot more aircraft resources at this problem over the next few days because it still is not certain whether or not Joaquin will directly impact the U.S. East Coast or stay out to sea,” said Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center.
The hurricane was expected to pass near the islands of San Salvador, Cat Island, Eleuthera and Rum Cay on Thursday, close enough that it could bring tropical-storm-force winds, storm surges, coastal flooding and 5-10 inches (13-25 centimeters) of rain, said Geoffrey Greene, a senior forecaster with the Bahamas Meteorology Department.
“We would be very concerned about them,” Greene said of the eastern islands.
The islands of the eastern Bahamas have relatively small populations, fewer than 1,000 on San Salvador, but they are vulnerable in a storm since most of the people live along the shoreline in modest homes.
On Eleuthera, a narrow strip to the north of Cat Island, people were removing stray coconuts and other debris from their yards and putting up storm shutters in blustery winds, said Chris Gosling, who runs a volunteer ambulance service on the island. Islanders have learned from past storms not to take chances.
“People don’t panic too much. There’s nothing you can do about it. If it comes, it comes and you do what you can,” said Gosling, who has lived on Eleuthera for 27 years. “If the forecast is right we will get some wind and rain and it will go back out to sea.”
The center of the storm was expected to be closest to land in the Bahamas about 2 p.m. Thursday, passing east of San Salvador, Greene said.
Schools were ordered closed as of noon Wednesday in pasts of the eastern and central Bahamas.
Forecasters expected the storm to drop about 3-5 inches (8-13 centimeters) in the central Bahamas, including Long Island and Exuma. The effects are projected to be minimal on New Providence, which includes the capital of Nassau, with scattered showers and thunderstorms.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center long-term forecast showed the storm could near the U.S. East Coast above North Carolina early next week.
“Residents of the Carolinas north should be paying attention and monitoring the storm. There’s no question,” said Eric Blake, a hurricane specialist with the center. “If your hurricane plans got a little dusty because of the light hurricane season, now is a good time to update them.”
The center of the storm Wednesday afternoon was about 175 miles (285 kilometers) east-northeast of the central Bahamas and moving toward the southwest at 8 mph (13 kph).