A weakening Hurricane Joaquin probably won’t be a threat to the U.S. as it turns north in the Atlantic away from the Bahamas, where it’s battering the islands with winds that fell to 125 miles (200 kilometers) per hour. A container ship with a 33-member crew is missing.

Joaquin weakened to a Category 3 hurricane, down from a Category 4, and was 15 miles from San Salvador, Bahamas, moving north at 7 mph as of 5 p.m. East Coast time, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. The center has shifted its potential track for the storm farther into the Atlantic and away from a potential landfall in the U.S.

“We do not anticipate any direct threats to the U.S. from Joaquin,” Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the center in Miami, said in an e-mail interview. “However, swells from Joaquin moving even far offshore of the U.S. East Coast can still cause life-threatening surf and rip-current conditions.”

The Bahamas will be battered by high winds, surf and heavy rains through the night. The system is likely to hit near Bermuda later this weekend, and the government of the island issued a tropical storm watch.

Ship Search

The U.S. Coast Guard sent an aircraft into the heart of Joaquin to look for crew members from the 735-foot El Faro, which was missing en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, according to statement from the agency’s Seventh District in Miami.

The last message received from the ship was that it had lost power and had a 15-degree list. Two Air Force Hurricane Hunter crews failed to find the ship earlier.

As much as 18 inches (46 centimeters) of rain may fall across the central Bahamas, and in isolated cases as much as 25, which could cause life-threatening flash floods. A storm surge may raise seas 12 feet above normal tide levels, with dangerous swells and rip currents forecast across the chain as well as in the southeastern U.S., according to the center.

U.S. ‘Non-Event’

“When it comes right down to it, except for the Bahamas this is a non-event,” said Tom Kines, a meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Much of the East Coast is already getting soaked by heavy rains and battered by high winds. Coastal flood and wind advisories are posted from southern New England to North Carolina, including New York City.

The winds blowing on shore, pushing seas onto beaches and creating erosion, are actually caused by the difference between high pressure over Canada and low pressure to the south. Joaquin isn’t responsible, Kines said.

Heavy rains, to the west of a front keeping Joaquin off the coast, are forecast for the southeastern U.S. As much as 19 inches could fall in South Carolina through the next five days, the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland, said. Flood warnings stretch from New Jersey to Georgia.

More than a foot is expected in South Carolina by Sunday. Hyde County, North Carolina, lifted a mandatory evacuation order for Ocracoke Island but said visitors would be barred.

“There is going to be a lot of rain and there is going to be flooding,” Kines said. “But that’s not associated with the hurricane; a lot of people think it is.”

–With assistance from Jim Polson in New York and Dan Hart in Washington.