‘Life-threatening’ Hurricane Hermine aims at Florida

APALACHICOLA, FL– Florida’s governor issued a stern warning Thursday for a state that hasn’t had a hurricane landfall for a decade: Hermine, expected to hit the eastern Florida Panhandle by early Friday, could be memorably dangerous.

Now spinning across the Gulf of Mexico, Hermine became a Category 1 hurricane on Thursday and is expected to slam into the Big Bend region of Florida’s Gulf Coast around midnight, bringing potentially deadly storm surges of up to 8 feet along with heavy rain, the National Hurricane Center said.

When Hermine makes its expected landfall, it would be the first hurricane to do so in the state since Wilma in 2005.

“This is life-threatening,” Gov. Rick Scott told reporters in Tallahassee on Thursday. “The storm surge, by itself, is life-threatening.”

“We have not had a hurricane in years. So many people have moved to our state (since) then, and we always have visitors,” he said. He warned people in the storm’s path to have at least three days of supplies, and to heed any mandatory evacuation orders along the coast.

Rain has been pounding Florida’s Gulf Coast ahead of the storm since Wednesday, and forecasters say much more is in store. Hermine could bring up to 10 inches of additional rainfall to some places, including the capital, Tallahassee — with up to 20 inches possible in small areas — before dumping heavy rain in parts of Georgia and the eastern Carolinas, forecasters said.

On Thursday afternoon, its maximum sustained winds hit 75 mph, upgrading Hermine’s status from a tropical storm to a hurricane.

Surge ‘is what got me worried right now’

But rain is just part of the threat. Storm surges and tides could push 1 to 8 feet of water into normally dry coastal areas, from Destin on the Panhandle to Tampa in west-central Florida, the hurricane center said. Tornadoes and downed power lines also are possible, forecasters said.

In Apalachicola on the Panhandle coast, contractors Lake Smith and Joshua Wolfhagen were boarding up windows Thursday at the Consulate, a four-suite hotel in a two-story brick building about 60 feet from the waterfront.

“Storm (surge) is what got me worried right now,” Smith said. “Mostly worried about washing out the roads and a few of the homes in low-lying areas.”

Wolfhagen said he feared Hermine would make for a significant disaster in Apalachicola and Franklin County — which he said could ultimately hurt his work.

“People … don’t want to build a house where storms hit. We got a bunch of work after the storm (from 2005) but we slowed way down,” he said.

A hurricane warning was in effect for the area between the Suwannee River westward to Mexico Beach, Florida.

Scott declared a state of emergency for 51 of the state’s 67 counties. He ordered all state offices in those 51 counties to close by noon Thursday.

Taking no chances with boats

People already were dealing with high water along the state’s Gulf Coast ahead of Hermine. Near Keaton Beach, about 60 miles southeast of Tallahassee, homeowner Jerry Schambeau was moving his boat out of the water and onto ground Wednesday.

“We have a boathouse for the boat, but if the tide comes up too high, it’ll push the boat up through the roof of the boathouse,” he told CNN affiliate WCTV-TV. “It’s a lot less expensive to pull the boat out of the water ahead of time.”

Largo in Pinellas County, west of Tampa, experienced heavy flooding Wednesday, with six families having to move out after water invaded their apartments, CNN affiliate WFTS-TV reported.

People in Spring Hill in Pasco County, north of Tampa, are still recovering from flooding a few months ago, WFTS reported. That flood made the road they depend on impassable, resident Misty Hale said.

“It’s going to be 10 times worse,” she said.

Residents have been sharing images of high water running through neighborhoods. In one, a man paddleboards down a street. A photo from Holmes Beach showed a woman floating on an air mattress in her driveway.

Some Florida Panhandle counties are taking no chances with their oceanside locales. Franklin County, just southeast of Panama City, issued a mandatory evacuation order for the coastal towns of St. George Island, Dog Island, Bald Point and Alligator Point, the county’s emergency management office said.

In Taylor County, farther east, evacuation orders were in place for Dekle Beach, Keaton Beach, Dark Island, Cedar Island, Steinhatchee, Spring Warrior, Econfina and Nutall Rise, CNN affiliate WTXL-TV reported.

Schools in 20 counties were closed Thursday, Scott said.

The National Weather Service has issued a new online product to help people prepare for the storm. The storm surge watch/warning graphic highlights spots with the highest risk for “life-threatening inundation from storm surge,” the service said.

Previously dubbed Tropical Depression Nine, the system strengthened into a tropical storm with 40-mph winds Wednesday afternoon.

Zika concerns

The storm may leave behind large areas of standing water, but one expert said that it shouldn’t increase fears over the Zika virus.

“We associate severe rain events like tropical events and hurricanes with increases in nuisance mosquitoes, not with disease-spreading (mosquitoes),” Ben Beard, Chief of the Bacterial Diseases Branch of CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, told CNN on Thursday.

The type of mosquito that could potentially carry Zika is affected by heavy rain and flooding, which also washes away larvae from small breeding sites such as bird baths and flower pots.

Nuisance mosquitoes will breed in water that remains standing after the storm passes.

Georgia declares emergency

Further north, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties in his state, parts of which are expected to get up to 10 inches of rain over the weekend.

“We are working to ensure counties in south, central and coastal Georgia have access to the state resources necessary to prepare when … Hermine enters Georgia,” Deal said Thursday.