Florida braced for its first hurricane in more than a decade Thursday as Hermine took aim at the Gulf Coast’s Big Bend.
With sustained winds reaching 80 mph, the sprawling storm rolled across shallow coastal waters, generating a storm surge that could reach nine feet in some areas. Hurricane winds stretched 45 miles from Hermine’s center. Tropical storm force winds extended another 185 miles to the northeast and southeast, worsening the odds for flooding and damage that could be both widespread and brutal.
“This is life threatening. We have a hurricane,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a media briefing as Hermine closed in on the coast. “You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life.”
Scott sent state workers home in Tallahassee, the largest population center in Hermine’s projected path across North Florida. State offices in at least 37 counties won’t open Friday either. Schools were also closed in many counties.
To the south, coastal communities already were reporting flooding from the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico well before Hermine made landfall. Parts of five counties were under mandatory evacuations because of the threat of storm surge.
Late Thursday, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Hermine was continuing to strengthen. It was showing signs of developing an eye for the first time as it whirled about 45 miles southeast of Apalachicola, moving14 mph on a track that would likely carry it ashore by late Thursday or in the early morning hours of Friday. After that, it’s expected to continue up the East Coast, through Georgia and the Carolinas, which also could see flooding rains.
Hermine marks the state’s first hurricane since Wilma in 2005, ending a decade without a single hurricane strike, a new record for the state. 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 and leaving a trail of damage estimated at $9 billion. The hope is for far less damage in a lightly populated area of the state.
"The good news is the majority of these are fairly small towns," said Bryan Koon, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. But the consequence of that is it could make it more of a challenge to rescue those in need who ignored the evacuation order, he added.
Beginning in the afternoon Thursday, Hermine pushed the seas ashore, with water levels rising more than two feet near Tampa and three feet in Cedar Key. Rain also hammered parts of the region, including 10 inches over 24 hours in Tampa. Water won’t likely be the only damage: Scott warned power outages could also cripple large areas.
Thursday afternoon, the Florida Highway Patrol closed the Skyway bridge as winds picked up. Mandatory evacuations in coastal neighborhoods were also ordered as water started to creep across roads.
A hurricane warning reached from the Suwanee River to Mexico Beach, south of Panama City and included the state’s capital, which hasn’t taken a direct hit from a hurricane in three decades. Much of North Florida came under a tropical storm warning, from the Panhandle south to the Tampa and St. Petersburg area and east to the Volusia and Flagler county lines.
Up and down the coast, residents in low-lying neighborhoods began boarding up and stockpiling supplies.
“We expect a lot of trees down and as wet as it’s been lately, it’s going to be ugly,” Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Trey Morrison told the Weather Channel. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people had been ordered to leave their homes in the county, he said.
In tiny, flood-prone Cedar Key, swamped last year by Tropical Storm Colin, city workers had trouble keeping up with requests for sandbags.
“This building right here is pretty safe and pretty strong so I think it will be all right,” said Jordon Keeton, who piled up sandbags to protect new equipment in his waterfront restaurant.
About a dozen shops boarded up windows. Outside his business, Joe Allen painted “Bring it on, Hermine,” in big black letters. But admitted he’s nervous.
“You can never fully protect yourself from nature,” Allen said.
The storm, which pounded Cuba with 20 inches of rain over the weekend, is expected to dump five to ten inches on northwest Florida and southern Georgia Friday. Some areas could get as much as 20 inches, forecasters said. Tornadoes are also possible as the storm plows across North Florida Friday.
As Hermine crosses the state into Georgia and across the Carolinas, forecasters expect it to weaken to a tropical storm. But the strong right side of the storm could still pose serious risks.
Scott warned people living in evacuation areas to heed orders and not delay leaving. He closed state offices in 51 counties, including Tallahassee where thousands of state employees work and which has not taken a direct hit from a hurricane in three decades. Schools in six coastal counties also closed. Florida A&M and Florida State University canceled classes. The state also closed parks and campgrounds in North and Central Florida.
“We’re going to see big storm surge. A lot of rain. A lot of flooding,” Scott said. “You have got to take this seriously.”
Despite calls for rain in Central Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has no plans to increase water flushed from Lake Okeechobee. Over the winter, record rain triggered releases that coated the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon with toxic, slimy algae. State water managers began moving water from the Kissimmee basin to make more room earlier this week. But Thursday,the Corps’ acting Operations Division Chief Candida Bronson said the lake, at 14.83 feet, was rising at a manageable level.
Michael Auslen of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau and The Associated Press contributed to this report.