Massive Hurricane Lee puts Bermuda under tropical storm warning, southeast US beaches at risk of rip currents

CNN  — 

Hurricane Lee has prompted a tropical storm warning over Bermuda and is expected to weaken over the next couple of days, though the system could remain “large and dangerous” through the week, forecasters said.

The massive storm, which remains a Category 3 hurricane as of Wednesday morning, continued to churn northwest in the open Atlantic and was about 495 miles south-southwest of the island with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph, according to the latest update from the National Hurricane Center.

“Even though the predicted track has the center of the hurricane passing well to the west of Bermuda, Lee’s very large wind field should result in tropical storm conditions spreading over the island by late Wednesday or early Thursday,” the hurricane center said in its 2 a.m. Wednesday forecast.

Lee could become a Category 2 hurricane by evening, but the storm’s coastal impacts beyond its center will be significant because of its colossal size and slow movement.

Lee’s size has grown steadily since the weekend, bringing hurricane-force winds that extend outward up to 125 miles from the center, the hurricane center said. Tropical-storm-force winds still extend up to 240 miles.

“Some slow weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours,” forecasters at the hurricane center said late Tuesday. “However Lee is likely to remain a large and dangerous hurricane for the next couple of days.”

And that’s why a weaker storm isn’t necessarily less hazardous – a larger storm carries the potential to impact a more widespread area, increasing the likelihood that Lee will affect the Eastern Seaboard.

As of Wednesday morning, the exact timing and extent of Lee’s winds and rainfall if it hits the US and possibly Canada were still uncertain. But the hurricane’s track may become clearer Thursday as it’s forecast to turn north and increase in forward speed.

By the end of the week, the northeastern US could see high wind gusts, even while Lee’s core remains hundreds of miles away. Tropical storm-force wind gusts could impact portions of Connecticut and eastern Massachusetts Friday night when Lee’s center is expected to be about 250 miles to the southeast.

High winds, heavy rainfall and storm surge could impact other parts of New England and eastern Canada this weekend.

Growing threats along shorelines

Beginning Wednesday night or early Thursday, heavy rainfall along with high surf are expected to sweep across Bermuda, where the island’s weather service issued a tropical storm warning.

Swells from Lee were already affecting parts of Bermuda. “These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions,” the hurricane center said Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, dangerous surf was already seen along the southeastern US coast from Florida through the Carolinas. The National Weather Service office in Charleston, South Carolina, warned of a high risk for rip currents along the shores of Georgia and South Carolina for Wednesday.

“Dangerous rip currents are possible and can sweep even the best swimmers away from shore,” the office said.

Some Caribbean islands, including the British and US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas have already faced similar conditions as Lee passed to their north.

By Thursday, Lee could weaken to a Category 1 storm as its center makes its closest pass near Bermuda on Thursday. Heavy rainfall may cause localized flash flooding.

CNN Meteorologist Mary Gilbert contributed to this report.

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