Joaquin becomes Category 1 hurricane

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

Joaquin’s center was churning 215 miles (345 kilometers) east-northeast of the central Bahamas. Its maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 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 storm expected to be near or over the islands by Thursday before turning north, 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 Myers said.

The hurricane center said Joaquin could become a Category 3 hurricane, with winds of 115 mph, in the Atlantic Ocean by Saturday after leaving the Bahamas.

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,” Myers said. “If we get a hit … that number may double.”

CNN’s Monica Garrett and Dave Hennen contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire