Last Updated Oct 1, 2015 12:09 AM EDT
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Steady rain drenched much of the East Coast on Wednesday, flooding roads, closing schools and forcing some people from their homes. And forecasters say the worst is yet to come.
The rainstorms may soon be joined by Hurricane Joaquin in a powerful weather system that could linger for days and dump as much as 10 inches through early next week in some places. The deluge has the potential to saturate the ground so heavily that trees topple onto power lines even without heavy winds.
"The bottom line is: We are expecting very heavy rains all the way from the Carolinas up into new England," said Bruce Terry, lead forecaster for the government's Weather Prediction Center.
Joaquin grew into a category 3 storm late Wednesday as it approached the central islands of the Bahamas on a projected track that would take it near the U.S. East Coast by the weekend.
Maximum sustained winds reached 115 mph and hurricane strength winds extended 35 miles from the center of the storm over the Atlantic Ocean, said the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, which predicted 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 or over several islands during the night and Thursday.
A turn to the north and northwest toward the United States was expected 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.
Before the hurricane draws close to the U.S., an area of low pressure in the Southeast and a front stalled over the East Coast will pull moisture from the Atlantic Ocean that falls as rain over the next few days, Terry said.
The heaviest rain is expected in wide swaths of North Carolina and Virginia, along with parts of Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, according to a National Weather Service forecast map.
Joaquin could make the difference between a few days of constant rain and an especially damaging storm. But the hurricane's path was far from certain.
"That's still up for grabs," Terry said.
So far, there's been little consensus among computer-prediction models for the hurricane.
In southwest Virginia, schools closed early Tuesday in several counties because of flooded roads. Blacksburg had a single-day record of 4.39 inches. In Salem, 30 members of a water-rescue team removed 100 people from a low-lying apartment complex and trailer park.
In Montgomery County, a Swift Water Rescue Team rescued a group of children from an elementary school bus Tuesday afternoon after rain washed out Walton Road, CBS affiliate WDBJ reported.
To the west in Elliston, 74-year-old Wendell Johns said floodwaters inundated his yard and left behind garbage and mud, but didn't make it into his trailer.
"I've got so much trash washed up, I don't know what I'm going to do," he said.
With water rising, he went Tuesday to stay at his sister's house after gathering what personal items he could carry, including an oxygen tank to help him breathe.
He said he spent an uneasy night wondering what would be waiting for him at home: "I was just sitting there praying."
Nearby, Shannon Sledd waited out the storm in the house she shares with her disabled parents and her two sons. Floodwaters up to 5 feet deep rose up to her front door, but didn't get inside.
"My mom and dad are really nervous," Sledd said. "We might have to get out."
"My team and I are closely monitoring the impacts of flooding around the Commonwealth and the potential for more extreme weather this week," Virginia Governor McAuliffe said, according to WDBJ. "We urge all Virginians to stay tuned to your local forecast and make a plan to stay safe in the event of flooding or other dangerous conditions. Don't drive through high water. When roads are flooded, turn around and drive to a safe location. It may save your life."
In North Carolina, steady rains have already disrupted communities from the central part of the state to the coast.
Some roads were closed Wednesday in Guilford County, and emergency medical service Director Don Campbell said he feared that more rain expected through the weekend would topple trees and knock out power.
Along the coast, parts of North Topsail Beach eroded from rains and an unusually high tide over the weekend, so officials were watching the hurricane's approach.
"We haven't had time to recover from last weekend," said Carin Faulkner, the assistant town manager.
"Regardless of the impact of Hurricane Joaquin, North Carolina has the potential for life-threatening flooding within the next week. We don't know yet how much or how widespread the flooding will be, but we know there will be flooding," North Carolina Emergency Management Director Mike Sprayberry said in a statement, CBS affiliate WRAL reported.
The National Weather Service was investigating whether a microburst or or small tornado touched down in Laurel, Maryland, Tuesday night, according to CBS affiliate WUSA.
According to a news release sent out Wednesday, the Laurel area was hit with more than three inches of rain in 55 minutes.
"It wasn't until people got up this morning that we discovered the true magnitude of this storm," said Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe " We'll be working with residents and business owners to make sure they can get back on their feet quickly."
An aerial view of one building shows a roof partially ripped off. Inspectors used a drone to survey the damage on Main Street.
In New England, a sudden downpour Wednesday led to flooding and slow commutes. Western Massachusetts got up to 5 inches in just hours, according to the National Weather Service.
College student Krystal Diaz said her commute by bus to downtown Providence from nearby Johnston had been especially long because of poor visibility and heavy traffic.
"Buses were going slow," Diaz said. "I was late for one of my classes."