MIAMI (AP) -- Hurricane Joaquin gained strength as it bore down on the central Bahamas early Thursday, and forecasters said it was likely to grow into a major storm while following a path that would near the U.S. East Coast by the weekend.
Some minor damage was reported by Bahamas officials late Wednesday, and islanders rushed to prepare for storm surges and heavy rain from the approaching Joaquin. Authorities said the center was likely to pass near or over several islands during the night and Thursday.
Joaquin was a Category 3 storm with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) and hurricane strength winds extending 35 miles (55 kilometers) from the eye early Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said. As of 5 a.m. EDT, the center of the storm was about 20 miles (35 kilometers) north of Samana Cays, Bahamas, and moving west-southwest at 5 mph (7 kph).
The storm was predicted to turn to the north and northwest toward the United States late Thursday or Friday, but forecasters were still gathering data trying to determine how it might 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.
On Eleuthera, a narrow strip to the north of Cat Island, people removed stray coconuts and other debris from their yards and put up storm shutters in blustery winds, said Chris Gosling, who runs a volunteer ambulance service on the island. Islanders have learned from past storms not to take chances.
"People don't panic too much. There's nothing you can do about it. If it comes, it comes, and you do what you can," said Gosling, who has lived on Eleuthera for 27 years. "If the forecast is right we will get some wind and rain and it will go back out to sea."
A hurricane warning was posted for Eleuthera as well as San Salvador, Cat Island and Rum Cay, with the threat of 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.
Stephen Russell, director of the country's National Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday night that storm surges washed out a portion of the main road on San Salvador and some people in low-lying areas of Mayaguana island were urged to evacuate their homes.
Those islands have relatively small populations, fewer than 1,000 on San Salvador, but they are vulnerable in a storm since most of the people live along the shoreline in modest homes.
A warning also was issued for some more populous islands in the northwestern Bahamas, including Grand Bahama and New Providence, where the capital of Nassau is.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center's long-term forecast showed the storm could near the U.S. East Coast along North Carolina and Virginia on Sunday.
"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."