Intensifying Hermine on track for Florida Gulf Coast landfall

Tropical Storm Hermine continued to strengthen and forecasters expected it to reach hurricane strength before a predicted landfall along the Florida Panhandle late Thursday.

The storm’s winds intensified throughout the day Wednesday, hitting maximum sustained winds of 60 mph, according to an advisory issued at 5 a.m. Thursday from the National Hurricane Center. More strengthening was expected, with the first tropical storm force winds reaching the Gulf Coast by afternoon.

The storm is expected to intensify into a hurricane before making landfall along Florida's Big Bend.

The wet messy storm could also push dangerous storm surges inland if it arrives at high tide. if it makes landfall as a Category 1 hurricane or stronger, it would be the first hurricane to hit Florida in 11 years.

Hermine was moving over warm waters and facing little resistance from wind shear so the storm could intensify into a hurricane by the time it makes landfall, forecasters said. Computer models Wednesday evening shifted the track west, more over the Panhandle. But they warned that where it strikes is not as worrisome as wider impacts. Inland areas, including Tallahassee, will feel some effects.

“We try to warn people that with these weaker systems, don’t focus on the track because hazards can extend many miles from where the center makes landfall,” said senior hurricane specialist Stacy Stewart.

Forecasters expanded surge warnings Wednesday evening, with water in parts of the Panhandle at risk of reaching up to seven feet. Areas near Tarpon Springs could see water rise two to four feet and Tampa Bay could see up to three feet of surge.

At 11 p.m., the storm was located about 295 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola. A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch stretched from just north of Tampa across the Panhandle.

Tropical storm force winds extend about 125 miles from Hermine’s center, with stronger winds to the east making Hermine’s right side more dangerous. The timing of tides will also play a big role in storm surge, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

“It saves them two and a half feet at low tide,” he said referring to tidal gauges in parts of the Panhandle.

McNoldy also gave Hermine low odds of becoming a hurricane as it encounters a front.

“One of the things helping it to turn back toward the northeast is a front coming and that’s going to introduce some shear and let some drier air mix in again,” he said. “It doesn’t have a huge window” before it makes landfall.

The wet storm could still deliver heavy rain. Forecasters predicted five to 10 inches of rain in Central Florida through Friday, with isolated areas receiving up to 20 inches in Northwest Florida. Tornadoes could also pop up in Central Florida late Wednesday night and in north Florida and southeast Georgia on Thursday, forecasters said.

In Miami, National Weather Service meteorologists maintained a flood watch for South Florida. Scattered thunderstorms are expected this afternoon as the storm continues stirring up moist tropical air, possibly producing wind gusts of up to 50 mph. Beaches could also get dangerous rip currents.

Water managers across the state are already bracing for more water on the heels of a record wet winter. The South Florida Water Management District announced Tuesday it had begun moving water out of the Kissimmee basin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is also keeping close watch on Lake Okeechobee, but so far is not moving any more polluted lake water into coastal estuaries still recovering from the winter flushing.

Gov. Rick Scott also issued a state of emergency for 42 counties during a Wednesday morning briefing at Florida’s Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. The state also closed parks in Central and North Florida on Wednesday evening.

Forecasters have also been keeping an eye on a second pesky depression off the Carolina coast that Wednesday evening they called “challenging.” In recent days, the storm looked like it might gain strength but now appears to be losing steam.

If Hermine does crank up to a hurricane before landfall, it would end a decade-long lucky streak for the state. The last hurricane to strike, Wilma, hit in late October 2005. While better formed and much stronger than Hermine, Wilma likewise pushed across the Gulf of Mexico, landing just south of Marco Island before plowing across the state for more than four hours and emerging near Jupiter.

Staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

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