ATLANTA, GA – The bad news is that Hurricane Joaquin is now a dangerous Category 4 storm and continues to strengthen. The good news is that the Garden State may be spared much of its wrath, according to the National Hurricane Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

In its 6 p.m. update, the agency reported that the storm, still hovering over the Bahamas, had intensified from Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, to an even more powerful Category 4 hurricane.

Category 5 is the most powerful storm on the scale with the most recent example being Hurricane Katrina when it plowed into the gulf region 10 years ago.

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There was somewhat of a silver lining to the storm’s clouds that are expected to turn to the north over the next two days, in that the track of the storm is expected to keep it off of the Eastern Seaboard coast, and out to sea.

The change in track could severely lessen the expected rain and wind that is expected to enter the state early next week.

According to the agency, Joaquin is currently centered about 25 miles northwest of Crooked Island in the Bahamas, moving toward the southwest near 6 mph.

A westward or southwestward motion is expected through tonight followed by a turn toward the north on Friday, with a faster motion toward the north is expected Friday night and Saturday.

On the forecast track, the center of Joaquin will move near or over portions of the central Bahamas tonight and pass near or over portions of the northwestern Bahamas on Friday, the agency reported.

A Hurricane Warning continues for the Central and Northwest Bahamas (including the Abacos, Berry Islands, Eleuthera, Grand Bahama Island, and New Providence) and for the Acklins, Crooked Island, and Mayaguana in the Southeast Bahamas.

A Hurricane Watch continues for Bimini and Andros Island. A Tropical Storm Warning continues for the remainder of the southeastern Bahamas now including the Turks and Caicos Island, and Andros Island, according to the agency.

“A strong majority of the forecast models are now in agreement on a track farther away from the United States east coast,” the report said. “We are becoming optimistic that the Carolinas and the Mid-Atlantic States will avoid the direct effects from Joaquin. However, we cannot yet completely rule out direct impacts along on the east coast, and residents there should continue to follow the progress of Joaquin over the next couple of days.”

To be on the safe side, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also a Republican presidential candidate, declared a state of emergency Thursday morning to ensure the state is prepared for the worst.

“There are two concerns for New Jersey coming out of the next four days of weather. The immediate threat is for severe flooding on Friday and Saturday, the second is tracking the path of Hurricane Joaquin as those forecasts become clearer over the next 24 to 72 hours,” Christie said during a press conference at the State House in Trenton Thursday. “Whether or not Joaquin is a direct issue for New Jersey by Monday, we know that there is definitely going to be moderate and likely to be major flooding events in South Jersey on Friday and Saturday, with 5-6 inches of rainfall expected to come over those two days."

That expected rainfall may significantly decrease if the present track forecast is correct, with the state only seeing 1-3 inches of rain, according to the National Hurricane Center.

South Brunswick police and the Office of Emergency Management have been watching developments with the storm and are estimating a 10 percent chance the state takes a direct hit, with a 60 percent chance of it going out to sea, according to an alert issued Thursday afternoon.

In Cranbury, Mayor Jay Taylor and Deputy Mayor Dan Mulligan met Thursday with Township Administrator Denise Marabello to discuss preparations for the storm.

“Naturally, we are hopeful that we're not facing an Irene or Sandy level event.  However, Cranbury is fully prepared for a variety of scenarios from minimal impact through a Sandy level event,” Taylor said in an email Thursday afternoon. “If we lose power during the storm we will be asking residents to contact the police through the non-emergency number to report outages.  The Police will then be reporting areas without power to the necessary entities.”

He said public works crews are prepared to deal with flooding and would be monitoring Brainerd Lake to minimize any issues.

“Should we have an extended lack of power such as Sandy, then we have made preparations to have Town Hall open during certain hours for residents to charge phones, use bathrooms, or have water,” Taylor said.

As provided by the state of emergency declaration, the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management will be authorized to mobilize and deploy resources beginning immediately to respond to the storm conditions, including resources of the New Jersey State Police, New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and New Jersey Department of Transportation, in coordination with county and municipal emergency management officials in impacted areas throughout the state, according to officials.

In addition, the state announced the following preemptive steps to mobilize government in preparation for the storm are being taken:

 

·         New Jersey Office of Emergency Management:

•               State Emergency Operations Center was activated at 6:00 am this morning to monitor the storm and it will remain open as long as necessary to meet anticipated challenging conditions.

•               Currently, NJOEM is monitoring the weather situation with the main focus on preparedness.

·         New Jersey Department of Transportation:

•               DOT is inspecting and clearing drainage systems; activating all regional emergency operations centers, testing communication systems and topping off fuel supplies. In addition, they have placed emergency contractors on alert to effect emergency repairs if needed and pre-positioned debris removal equipment.

•               DOT Operations division has the ability to utilize more than 700 people in more than 65 crews with more than 500 pieces of heavy equipment to respond to the storm.

·         New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection:

•               As of this morning, no rivers are forecast to go to flood stage, but DEP will continue to monitor the situation as the weekend forecast becomes more certain

•               DEP has assessed which beaches are most vulnerable and has reached out to towns to ask if they need assistance from the State to move sand or need more sand

•               DEP has contacted all wastewater and water supply facilities them to make sure they are secure and have emergency plans at the ready and backup power on site (generators and fuel)

·         New Jersey Board of Public Utilities:

•               BPU has been in active discussion with power companies and public utility leadership to ensure that their companies are preparing for the storm and to make sure we are kept abreast of critical issues.

·         New Jersey Department of Health:

•               DOH has reached out to hospitals, FQHCs, long-term care facilities and dialysis centers to update them on the latest storm projections, remind them to get emergency staffing plans in place and to set up regular updates via conference calls.

·         New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness:

•               OHSP and State Police are working in partnership to ensure proper staging and availability of commodities regionally throughout the state

·         NJ TRANSIT:

•               NJ TRANSIT’s top priority is passenger safety of the traveling public. Anyone planning to travel during the storm is urged to allow extra time and be extremely careful traveling in and around stations, on platforms and on-board trains, buses, light rail vehicles and Access Link vehicles.

•               NJ TRANSIT’s maintenance forces have begun stockpiling stone, while inspecting culverts, drainage pipes and rights-of-way to ensure they are clear of blockages that could exacerbate flooding and disrupt service. NJT rail and light rail crews and equipment will be on standby to respond to downed trees, wires and flooding.

TAPInto South Brunswick and Cranbury Town Editor Nicole M. Wells contributed to this report.