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Hurricane Joaquin lurks as meteorologists disagree over threat to U.S.

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BY ALEXANDER SMITH, NBC News

(NBC News) - Tropical Storm Joaquin strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane Wednesday morning — but meteorologists remain divided about whether it is likely to smash into the East Coast.

Joaquin — the third hurricane of the 2015 Atlantic season — is packing sustained winds of 75 mph as it lurks about 250 miles east of the Bahamas, according to the National Weather Service.

Regardless of whether the hurricane makes landfall in the U.S. — which some forecasters believe could happen in the mid-Atlantic region on Sunday — a huge swath of the East Coast is bracing for heavy rain and flooding this week.

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"It could be a significant situation," said Brian Fortier, senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel. "Everyone along the Northeast coast, right up to New England, should keep a close eye on the forecasts."

A hurricane warning had been issued for Joaquin earlier Wednesday.

The National Weather Service said these warnings are typically alerted 36 hours before "conditions that make outside preparations difficult or dangerous," meaning that "preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion."

The storm is predicted to move southwest before swinging northwards, but that's where the agreement between meteorologists ends.

Some experts say the center of the storm will stay offshore; others predict it will make landfall, likely hitting North Carolina or Virginia this weekend.

"If there's anywhere in this country that could take a Category 1 hit, it would be eastern North Carolina," NBC News meteorologist Bill Karins said on MSNBC Wednesday morning.

If Joaquin does make landfall, the mid-Atlantic would face high winds — possibly as strong as 100 mph — and torrential rains.

However, even if the hurricane does not make landfall, its resultant rains looked certain to drench most of the Eastern Seaboard through the latter week and weekend, according to The Weather Channel.

Before Joaquin arrives on the scene — or not, as the case may be — an area from Maine to North Carolina was set for a separate round of rainfall that had already started overnight Tuesday into Wednesday in some areas.

This system was the result of a complex cocktail of "moving parts," according to Fortier, including a cold front in the east and low pressure in the South that has already caused heavy rainfall there.

The area could expect widespread 3 inches of rain, with as much as 5 inches in localized areas, through Thursday, Fortier said. Wednesday's morning commute looked likely to be a wash out in many areas.

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