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East Coast likely to dodge hurricane, but flooding looms

Hurricane Joaquin

A picture from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a satellite image of Hurricane Joaquin in the Bahamas on Friday.

(NOAA / EPA)

Millions along the East Coast breathed a little easier Friday after forecasters said Hurricane Joaquin would probably veer out to sea. But a freakishly powerful rainstorm fueled in part by the hurricane threatened to bring ruinous flooding to parts of the Atlantic Seaboard over the weekend.

With the soil already soggy and roads swamped in places from days of rain, East Coast states braced for what forecasters said could be unprecedented and life-threatening downpours over the next few days.

Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and parts of Delaware were under states of emergency, though meteorologists said the Carolinas will probably get the worst of it, with 15 inches of rain in some places and landslides possible in the mountains.

“It’s going to be enormous,” meteorologist Ryan Maue of Weather Bell Analytics said. “It’s going to be a slow-motion disaster.”

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For days, authorities had feared that Joaquin would link up with the rainstorm, multiplying the disastrous effects. Various computer models showed the hurricane hitting North Carolina’s Outer Banks, New Jersey, New York’s Long Island or Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.

But on Friday, with Joaquin raking the Bahamas with winds of 130 mph, forecasters said it appeared that the hurricane would pass well off the U.S. coast.

“It looks like we dodged a bullet this time,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the Jersey shore, which nevertheless girded for heavy weather nearly three years after it was devastated by Superstorm Sandy. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”

The rainstorm threatened to bring a gusty and prolonged drenching from Georgia to New England. Forecasters warned that even if Joaquin peels away from the coast, its effects will still be felt, because it will continue to supply tropical moisture to the rainstorm.

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“We are growing increasingly concerned about the situation in South Carolina, western North Carolina and perhaps even in northeast Georgia,” said David Novak, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Weather Prediction Center. “We’re pretty confident that some places are going to have 15 inches. A lot of places are going to have 5, 6, 7 inches of rain, particularly the whole state of South Carolina.”

Parts of Virginia and Maryland could get up to 5 inches.

The storm was already blamed for at least one death in South Carolina, where heavy rain has fallen for days. Sylvia Arteaga, 56, was trapped in a flash flood under a railroad bridge in Spartanburg and drowned while driving home from the night shift.

Authorities around the region also warned that the saturated soil could cause trees to topple, and they said that might have played a role in the death of a passenger whose vehicle was hit by a tree on Interstate 95 near Fayetteville, N.C.

By mid-morning Friday, water was flowing over South Main Street on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island.

“Every year, we kind of hold our breath, knowing that we’re due,” said Brian Shotwell, manager of a sandwich shop.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Joaquin tore off roofs, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding in the Bahamas, and the U.S. Coast Guard searched for a missing 735-foot cargo ship with 33 people aboard.

Residents of Princeville, North Carolina, couldn’t help thinking of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when muddy, swirling floodwaters wiped out 850 homes in the community of about 2,000 that is considered the oldest U.S. town chartered by blacks.

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Jackie Vines and her husband wound up living in a trailer in an encampment that became known as FEMA City.

As for the storm now threatening Princeville, Vines said: “All of that’s in God’s hands. I just pray about it.”

Reported from Chincoteague, Virginia and Washington.

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