Hermine’s Florida toll: 1 dead, 253,000 without power and a soggy mess

Hurricane Hermine bringing flooding condition to Manatee County

Hurricane Hermine continued to bring downpours to Manatee County created more flooding conditions to an already saturated area.
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Hurricane Hermine continued to bring downpours to Manatee County created more flooding conditions to an already saturated area.

Florida began digging out of the soggy mess left by Hurricane Hermine on Friday after the state’s first hurricane in a decade roared ashore near the tiny Big Bend town of St. Marks.

Carving a path that stretched from Tampa to the Panhandle, the storm battered the state but claimed only one life despite delivering dangerously high storm surge.

Trees toppled, boats washed ashore and power lines fell, initially leaving more than a quarter-million people in the dark. A homeless man in Marion County died when a tree branch fell on his tent. The Sunshine Skyway shut down for a day. In Cedar Key, a clam shop burned down. One upside: the fiercest winds near the storm’s eye hit a sparsely populated pocket of the coast, between a wildlife sanctuary and a national park.

The damage will likely take days to fully assess, as businesses and homeowners begin the work of cleaning up flooded property. One thing will put Hermine in the record books: It ended the state’s 11-year lucky streak.

Wilma was the last hurricane to strike in 2005, a lethal storm that caused more than $2 billion in damage. Five deaths were blamed on the storm and about six million people lost power. Damages from Hermine across Florida and the East Coast could total $1 billion, according to Boston-based risk assessment firm Karen Clark & Co.

Hermine arrived about 1:30 a.m. at the worst possible time: high tide. In Cedar Key, water rose nearly 10 feet above low tide, the fifth-highest level ever recorded in the islands, said Brian McNoldy, a University of Miami hurricane researcher. Seawater surged ashore, tumbling docks and carrying mud and debris. But weather-hardened residents emerged largely unscathed.

These people are tough; everybody will come out of it.

Joseph Cannon, manager Gulf Coast Cedar Gold clam shop

“There was no loss of life,” Joseph Cannon, whose business was destroyed by a fire, told WUFT. “These people are tough; everybody will come out of it.”

Because of the curving shoreline, storm surge in the Big Bend can be more treacherous, said McNoldy.

“If it approaches a flat coast, you’ll still get storm surge but some portion of the water is free to move along the coast. It’s not 100 percent pushed on shore,” he said. “But when you have a coast line shaped like this, like a cup, that can really make a storm surge a lot worse.”

By daylight, some streets remained flooded. In Pasco County, 18 people trapped in their homes were rescued with high-water vehicles. A coastal road collapsed east of Apalachicola. Residents waded through ankle deep water from Bradenton to the Panhandle.

In St. Marks, a Gulf port founded by the Spanish and slammed by Hurricane Dennis in 2005, residents breathed a sigh of relief to find trees and power lines down but no severe damage.

There was “a lot of wind” and some rain overnight, said City Manager Zoe Mansfield, but conditions were far less dire than predicted. Storm surge in the town 20 miles south of Tallahassee only reached about three feet, she said, leaving minimal flooding and no widespread damage.

We all feel very lucky.

St. Marks City Manager Zoe Mansfield

"We all feel very lucky," Mansfield said.

St. Marks, like the rest of Wakulla County, remained without power by mid-morning Friday, but Mansfield expected to have power restored by later in the day or Saturday.

As the storm moved over land, winds quickly slowed. By 2 p.m., the National Hurricane Center said sustained speeds had dropped to 50 mph. Tropical storm warnings were discontinued for Florida and shifted to the East Coast for the Labor Day weekend. On Friday night, a tropical storm warning extended into Delaware, New Jersey and New York, which were bracing for a storm that could regain strength Sunday.

About 99 percent of Wakulla County’s residents lost electricity. In Leon County, 68 percent lost power. Florida Power & Light reported customers without electricity from Jacksonville to Tampa, but said overall a newly hardened grid kept the lights on. By Friday morning, FPL had restored power to 76,000 with about 10,000 still without electricity, said spokesman Bryan Garner.

Downed trees and outages were “pretty ubiquitous.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum

In Tallahassee, which is not serviced by FPL, Mayor Andrew Gillum said downed trees had blocked many major streets and outages were “pretty ubiquitous.” Gillum estimated that as many as 100,000 residents lost electricity, including 70,000 city customers.

On Friday afternoon, 80 percent of the city’s grid was still without power, affecting roughly 67,600 customers.

"Crews are working diligently to assess the damage caused by Hermine. Full power restoration could take several days," the city said via Twitter.

Close to the storm’s peak at about 2 a.m., about 70,000 customers quickly lost power in Tallahassee. Talquin Electric Cooperative, a rural electric provider in parts of North Florida, reported 37,800 customers without power across Leon, Wakulla, Gadsden and Liberty counties at 5:30 a.m. In Georgia, about 30,000 lost power as the storm moved into the state early Friday.

Florida State University, which canceled classes Thursday, also lost power and won’t likely have it restored until Sunday.

To help students without power and air-conditioning — temperatures Friday climbed into the mid 90s — the university is offering a free "relief station" at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center. Students will have access to electrical outlets, movies, snacks, beverages, other activities and information about storm recovery.

A storm surge rising between eight and 10 feet also hit parts of the Wakulla County coast, south of Tallahassee, Administrator Dustin Hinkel said Friday. Seawater rolled across county beaches, damaging docks and flooding coastal roads.

In the Tampa area, heavy rain caused widespread flooding. Over the last 72 hours, some areas received more than 22 inches, the National Weather Service reported. Downed trees and power lines made driving treacherous, law enforcement authorities warned.

At least 18 people fled their homes in Pasco County as waters rose. County fire rescue crews and sheriff’s deputies used high-water vehicles to grab people from flood waters and take them to a nearby shelter.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said that more than 50 shelters were opened, and that about 300 sought shelter from the storm. Schools and state offices will also remained closed, he said, with classes canceled in 35 counties.

At least a dozen crews from the city of Tallahassee were dispatched early Friday to start clearing trees and debris from major roadways, the city said.

Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said that it may take a couple of days to determine whether the state will request federal assistance.

"We're not there yet," he said. "Once we get life-safety issues done this morning, we'll start working with the counties to get power back up, get the infrastructure stabilized, then we'll start into the damage assessment process."

Reporter Michael Auslen, the Associated Press and The News Serivce of Florida contributed to this report.

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