Joaquin is forecast to become a major hurricane by Saturday as it strengthens in the Atlantic, triggering hurricane warnings and watches for the Bahamas. Its course after crossing the island chain is still uncertain, the National Hurricane Center said.
Joaquin, now a Category 1 storm with winds of 85 miles (135 kilometers) per hour, was forecast to begin raking the central Bahamas with hurricane-force winds Thursday. The storm is about 190 miles east-northeast of those islands and is moving southwest at 6 mph, the Miami-based center said in an 2 p.m. advisory.
“Winds are expected to first reach tropical storm strength in the warning area tonight, making outside preparations difficult or dangerous,” Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist, said in the advisory. “Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.”
Where Joaquin will go after it crosses the Bahamas hasn’t been determined, and a direct strike on the U.S. East Coast can’t be ruled out, Beven said. There’s also a chance the storm will pass harmlessly out to sea and miss the U.S.
“Confidence in the details of the track forecast late in the period remains low, since the environmental steering currents are complex and the model guidance is inconsistent,” Beven said. “It is therefore way too soon to talk about specific wind, rain, or surge impacts from Joaquin in the U.S.”
There is a 30 percent chance that tropical storm-strength winds will reach the coastline from North Carolina to Delaware in the next five days and more than a 10 percent chance the storm-strength winds of 39 mph or more will strike anywhere from Massachusetts to South Carolina.
Some computer models suggest the storm will hit somewhere in North Carolina in four days, while the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts model takes Joaquin off to the northeast toward Bermuda, said Phil Klotzbach, lead author of Colorado State University’s seasonal hurricane forecast.
“Since the ECMWF is generally considered to be the best track model, it’s a really tough call,” Klotzbach said.
One difficulty for meteorologists is that the storm’s forward speed will probably increase should it become a threat to the U.S., resulting in “impacts along the coast occurring sooner than currently forecast,” Beven said. If that happens, “a hurricane watch could be required for portions of the U.S. coast as early as Thursday evening.”
The current forecast shows Joaquin’s top winds reaching 115 mph by Saturday, which would make it a Category 3 storm, or major hurricane, on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.
The U.S. hasn’t been hit by a major hurricane since 2005. Sandy was only a Category 1-level system just prior to hitting the New Jersey coast in 2012.
Even without a strike by Joaquin, the U.S. East Coast has been drenched by heavy downpours. More than 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain is forecast for parts of southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina in the next seven days, according to the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.
“There could be some heavy rains along the Eastern Seaboard before Joaquin even gets up here,” said Paul Walker, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.
Winds from the east will push water up against the coastline for the next few days, Walker said. With the heavy rains and onshore winds, the possibility of flooding will rise even if Joaquin doesn’t arrive.
The one bright spot is that much of the East Coast was either abnormally dry or in drought, so river levels are lower and they may be able to absorb some of the water, he said.
Flood warnings and watches currently cover most of New England and much of New York, the National Weather Service said.
As of 2 p.m. New York time, 101 flights in the U.S. were canceled and 1,289 more delayed, according to FlightAware, a Houston-based airline tracking service.
In the central Bahamas,Joaquin, the 10th storm of the six- month Atlantic hurricane season, could drop as much as 5 inches of rain. Rum Cay and San Salvador may get 10. In addition, Joaquin’s storm surge is expected to raise water levels 2 to 4 feet above normal. The surge “will be accompanied by large and dangerous waves,” the hurricane center said.
Cat Island, the Exumas, Long Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador can expect hurricane-force winds within the next 36 hours. The storm may later hit the northwestern Bahamas, including Abacos, Berry Islands, Bimini, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island and New Providence.
–With assistance from Ladka Bauerova in Prague.
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