With winds measuring at 115 mph as it headed toward the Bahamas on Thursday morning, Hurricane Joaquin has officially been upgraded to a Category 3 storm, according to AccuWeather. Meteorologists expect the storm to reach category four strength by late Thursday evening and could hit the east coast by the weekend, forecasters said. Meteorologists continue to disagree on whether the storm will make landfall and exactly which cities Hurricane Joaquin is expected to hit because of different forecasting models. But it's clear that the storm is intensifying faster than expected, which is why cities along the East coast are bracing for massive flooding and possible impact. (Update: Hurricane Joaquin strengthened to a Category 4 hurricane on Thursday afternoon.)
Joaquin collided with islands in central and eastern Bahamas on Thursday, resulting in minor flooding but no severe damage or casualties, the Associated Press reported. From there, hurricane center trackers could offer no clear predictions of the storm's path. One prediction is that Joaquin will turn toward Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina this weekend; another model has the storm turning eastward back into the Atlantic Ocean.
In an advisory issued on Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said that the range of possible outcomes is still too large to say for certain whether Joaquin will hit the Carolinas or states farther north.
Still, NHC officials warn that Joaquin will mean strong wind and historic flooding for cities along the east coast over the next 48 hours. Because the hurricane arrives on the heels of a massive rain system already moving up the eastern seaboard, meteorologists predict 10 to 15 inches of rain for cities as far inland as Columbia, South Carolina, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Meteorologist Mike Smith of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions warned, "There is going to be catastrophic flooding from North Carolina to Massachusetts, and this is going to disrupt the economy regardless of whether or not Hurricane Joaquin makes landfall."
That path might sound unsettlingly similar to the one that Superstorm Sandy cut through the eastern seaboard just three years ago. While meteorologists said that Joaquin isn't nearly as powerful as Superstorm Sandy was by this point in its development, it is expected to follow a similar track up the east coast.
Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a statement warning New Yorkers to prepare for heavy storms over the weekend, according to NBC News:
Our state has seen the damage that extreme weather can cause time and time again — and I am urging New Yorkers to take precautions for more heavy storms in the coming days.
Because of the heavy rains and potential flooding predicted for Thursday and Friday, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued a state of emergency for the state on Wednesday night and North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory asked state agencies to brace for major flooding.
AccuWeather meteorologists warned that other nearby states may follow suit over the coming days.