Hurricane Joaquin gathered strength on Thursday as it moved over the Bahamas and officials on the U.S. East Coast began gearing up for possible landfall early next week, three years after Superstorm Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey.
Joaquin, the third hurricane of the 2015 Atlantic season, intensified into a major Category 3 storm on a scale of 1 to 5, with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour (205 kph), the National Hurricane Center said. Forecasts were still inconclusive on whether the storm would slam into the U.S. East Coast or head to sea without making landfall, the NHC said.
The storm was expected to become more powerful, possibly becoming a Category 4 over the next day, as it moves near or over parts of the Bahamas, the Miami-based NHC said. The eye was passing over uninhabited Samana Cay early Thursday, moving southwest at 6 mph (9 kph), threatening resorts on the smaller islands of San Salvador, Exuma and Cat Island.
Joaquin’s hurricane-force winds were forecast to miss the larger Bahamas islands and the main cities and cruise ship ports of Freeport and Nassau.
“Joaquin is expected to intensify a little more in the next 12 to 24 hours while over very warm waters,” the NHC said.
The storm’s current plodding pace suggests prolonged hurricane conditions in parts of central and northwestern Bahamas, along with torrential rain and storm surges, before it makes a sharp turn north towards the United States.
Storm surge will push water as much as 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 metres) above normal tide levels in the central Bahamas, the NHC said, with up to 20 inches (51 cm) of rain possible in some areas.
Several models show Joaquin approaching the coast of the Carolinas at the weekend, losing strength as it moves offshore past Delaware and New Jersey early next week to head towards Long Island and New England, but its exact trajectory remains unclear, with one often reliable European model indicating it could cut a path out to sea.
“Confidence remains very low in the eventual track of Joaquin and any potential impacts for the United States,” the NHC said on Thursday.
Residents on the islands closest to Joaquin’s path, which include Rum Cay, Long Island, Exuma and Eleuthera, had stocked up on food and drink, and were boarding up homes and businesses.
In North Carolina’s vulnerable Outer Banks, a strip of barrier islands linked by road, some vacationers decided to pack up early and leave before the weekend.
“Everybody is taking this one a little more serious because of the rain we have had,” said Hyde County commissioner John Fletcher on Ocracoke Island, noting heavy rain has saturated the area in recent days.
The governors of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey – where Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 killed more than 120 people and caused some $70 billion in property damage – warned residents to prepare for a possible severe storm.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie declared a state of emergency, adding he would consider ordering evacuations.
Heavy rains over the northern Appalachians and New England have greatly increased the chance of flooding if Joaquin comes ashore, forecasters at the privately run Weather Channel said.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe also declared a state of emergency to deal with flooding this week and the possibility of Joaquin making landfall.
One person died after several cars were submerged in flash floods in South Carolina, local media reported on Thursday.
U.S. energy companies said they had learned from Sandy and used the last three years to gird their oil, natural gas and power infrastructure to better withstand another storm.
Consolidated Edison Inc, which supplies power, gas and steam to more than three million customers in the New York City area, said it was three years into a four-year $2 billion plan to strengthen its infrastructure after Sandy shut down the Big Apple.
Sandy, the worst storm in Con Edison’s history, left about a million customers without power, with outages lasting a couple of weeks in the hardest hit areas. Some customers of other utilities were without power for much longer.
The U.S. East Coast has nine refineries with an operable capacity of about 1.3 million barrels per day, according to government data.