APALACHICOLA, Fla. — Hermine slammed into Florida’s Gulf Coast early Friday as a Category 1 hurricane, the strongest storm to hit the state in more than a decade, bringing heavy rain, powerful winds and storm surges that forced some evacuations as the system began its crawl up the Atlantic Coast.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost power, while at least one death was blamed on Hermine, which was downgraded to a tropical storm shortly before 5 a.m., just a few hours after making landfall in Florida
Authorities warned Friday of powerful winds as the storm was expected to move through Georgia and into South Carolina and North Carolina on Friday. A tropical storm warning was issued from North Carolina to Delaware, while tropical storm watches were issued as far north as New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.
“The combination of a storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the National Hurricane Center said Friday.
The storm was about 80 miles west of Charleston, S.C., by Friday afternoon, the center said, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph and some higher gusts.
The center also warned of “the possibility of life-threatening inundation” through Sunday morning around the North Carolina-Virginia border and in Bridgeport, Conn. In addition, it said heavy rains across the Southeast as well as along the coast from Georgia to Maryland could “cause life-threatening floods and flash floods.”
As the long holiday weekend got underway for many, authorities said there were widespread power outages and warned of dangers from winds and water alike. The National Hurricane Center said at 8 a.m. that Hermine was “weakening” but that winds were “increasing along the Southeast coast,” adding that “storm surge and flooding rains continue.”
Officials say they expected the storm to move through the Atlantic Seaboard to North Carolina before heading back into the open ocean. According to the Capital Weather Gang, the storm is expected to cross into the Atlantic over the next 24 hours and then ride up the East Coast with excessive rainfall and storm surge.
As the storm moved past Florida on Friday morning, emergency teams assessed the damage from downed trees and utility lines, and a storm surge of up to nine feet, said Gov. Rick Scott (R). The tropical storm warning was discontinued for the Gulf Coast of Florida later Friday morning.
Power outages impacted nearly 300,000 customers, the Florida Division of Emergency Management said just before 3 p.m. Scott said there were near-total blackouts in some areas. At least one storm-linked death was reported in Florida after a man was killed by a falling tree.
Scott also warned that pools of untreated standing water could become “breeding grounds” for mosquitoes, raising risks of greater spread of the Zika virus. Nearly 50 cases of Zika have been recorded in Florida, many from areas to the south near Miami.
By 8 a.m., Hermine was centered about 35 miles northeast of Valdosta, Ga., and was moving north and northeast at about 14 mph, the National Weather Service said. It still packed sustained winds of near 70 mph moving into southern Georgia, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said, and weakened as it drifted inland.
Authorities were also warning of other possible dangers to people across the region. The National Weather Service said Friday morning it was issuing tornado watches for parts of southeastern Georgia, southeastern North Carolina and the South Carolina coastal plain, putting these in place until 4 p.m. Friday.
A few tornadoes were possible with “isolated damaging wind gusts to 70 mph possible,” the weather service warned.
Across Florida, there were reports of downed power lines and debris. Even with the storm moving into Georgia, officials warned people to remain home due to the dangers posed on the streets:
The storm’s arrival brought with it closures and warnings for people to stay home. The University of Florida, located just east of the panhandle, canceled classes and shuttered offices on the campus until Saturday morning and instructed people to remain indoors. The University of North Florida in Jacksonville, on the state’s east coast, said it was canceling all classes and activities Friday as well due to the storm.
In Florida’s Pasco County, officials said coastal flooding forced at least 18 people from their homes. Authorities used boats and rescue vehicles to comb people stranded in low-lying areas.
Torrential rain lashed parts of Florida, with more than 22 inches drenching Oldsmar, about 10 miles northwest of Tampa, and more than 15 inches of rain hitting nearby Largo, meteorologist Daniel Noah of the National Weather Service in Tampa told the Associated Press. In Georgia, power was cut to more than 30,000 homes and businesses, officials said.
Hermine was the first hurricane to hit Florida since Wilma in October 2005.
Projected storm surges of up to 12 feet menaced a wide swath of the coast and an expected drenching of up to 10 inches of rain carried the danger of flooding along the storm’s path over land, including Tallahassee, which hadn’t been hit by a hurricane since Kate in 1985, the AP reported.
More than 70,000 Tallahassee residents were left without power, “which may not be restored for days,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported. Thousands more along Florida’s coast were also without power. Several people took to social media to post photos of downed trees and other storm damage.
Gov. Scott on Thursday had warned of the danger of a strong storm surge, high winds, downed trees and power outages. He urged people during the day to move to inland shelters if necessary and make sure they had enough food, water and medicine.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” Scott said. “It’s going to be a lot of risk. Right now, I want everybody to be safe.”
Scott added that 6,000 National Guardsmen in Florida were ready to mobilize after the storm passed. The governors of Georgia and North Carolina declared states of emergency as forecasters warned of the potential for drenching rain and deadly flooding.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed an executive order declaring an emergency in 56 counties there that will stretch through midnight Saturday, and he said officials were working with “counties in south, central and coastal Georgia” to be ready for the storm.
“On the forecast track, the center of Hermine should move farther inland across the eastern Florida Panhandle into southeastern Georgia later today,” the National Hurricane Center’s website said at 2 a.m. Friday. “The center of Hermine should then move near or over eastern South Carolina tonight and near or over eastern North Carolina on Saturday.”
In Apalachicola, the damage appeared to be mostly from flooding and downed trees after days of emergency preparations. In 1993, the so-called “No Name Storm” hit the north coast in the middle of the night, taking many people by surprise and causing massive damage. A 12-foot storm surge in Taylor County drowned at least 10 people there, including five from one family. Throughout Florida, 44 people died.
Some owners of waterfront businesses were watching the tides on Thursday evening, wondering how far they would rise. Lynn Martina, owner of Lynn’s Quality Oysters in Eastpoint, said the water there was already about three feet over normal high tide, and only about 20 feet from Highway 98. “We’re just waiting it out,” she said of the storm.
Hundreds of Duke Energy emergency personnel were using Franklin County as a staging area for regional repair efforts, according to local officials.
In Apalachicola, which is normally full of tourists this time of year, streets were empty late Thursday. A few restaurants stayed open to serve locals, emergency crews and TV reporters.
Murphy and Berman reported from Washington. Susan Hogan and the Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated.