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 East Coast of the U.S. 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 that 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 before heading northwest. 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 late Thursday and Friday, 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 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 was about 190 miles (305 kilometers) east-northeast of the central Bahamas and moving toward the southwest at 6 mph (9kmh).