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Hurricane Joaquin strengthens rapidly overnight

Joaquin strengthened rapidly overnight, becoming a major category three hurricane as it began to batter the Bahamas, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) reports. The storm could affect the U.S. East Coast early next week.

As of 8 a.m. ET on Thursday, the center of Joaquin was located about 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Samana Cays, an uninhabited island of the Bahamas. It is expected to continue moving towards the west-southwest throughout Thursday, moving further into the Bahamas, before a turn towards the west-northwest on early Friday that will move Joaquin back into the open Atlantic.

Maximum sustained winds have strengthened to 120 miles (195 kilometers) per hour, with higher gusts, and Joaquin is forecast to become a category four hurricane by Thursday afternoon. "Joaquin is expected to intensify a little more in the next 12 to 24 hours while over very warm waters and with decreasing vertical shear," said NHC senior hurricane specialist Michael Brennan.

Hurricane conditions have already begun to affect portions of the central and southeastern Bahamas and will spread to portions of the northwestern Bahamas on Friday. Hurricane-force winds will be accompanied by a dangerous storm surge and heavy rainfall that may cause life-threatening flash floods.

Long-term forecasts continue to show a possible landfall on the east coast of the United States early next week, but the forecast remains uncertain and is subject to change. "Confidence remains very low in the eventual track of Joaquin and any potential impacts for the United States," Brennan explained.

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