Hurricane Joaquin Strengthens to Category 3, Could Reach 4

PHILADELPHIA (AP/WTXF) - Hurricane Joaquin strengthened to a category 3 Wednesday evening as it approached the central islands of the Bahamas, following a projected track that would take it near the U.S. East Coast by the weekend.

MORE: The Latest on Hurricane Joaquin From the FOX 29 Weather Authority

Maximum sustained winds reached 120 mph and extended 35 miles from the center of the storm over the Atlantic Ocean, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, which predicted Joaquin would develop into a major hurricane in the coming days.

Thursday morning, the projected path had made some changes, as it begins to project a more parallel path to the coast, avoiding a direct hit. The possibility of the Hurricane becoming a Category 4 has also developed overnight.

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.

PHOTOS: Tracking Hurricane Joaquin's Path

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."

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Thursday morning, the center of the storm was about 20 miles (305 kilometers) North of the Samana Cays Bahamas and moving west-southwest at 5 mph.

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