Say hello to Hermine. After days of threatening to intensify, a tropical depression in the Gulf of Mexico blossomed into a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon.
With sustained winds reaching 45 mph and moving about 7 mph Wednesday evening, National Hurricane Center forecasters said the storm will likely near northwest Florida Thursday. Tropical storm force winds could reach the coast by afternoon. The wet messy storm could also push dangerous storm surges inland if it arrives at high tide.
Hermine, which faced little resistance from wind shear and slowed to a standstill earlier in the day over warm waters, could still strengthen to a hurricane by the time it makes landfall. But National Hurricane Center forecasters warn that where it arrives is not as worrisome as wider impacts.
“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 five feet. Areas near Tarpon Springs could see water rise up to four feet and Tampa Bay could see up to two feet of surge.
At 5 p.m., the storm was still located about 325 miles south, southwest of Apalachicola. A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch stretched from just north of Tampa to the Panhandle.
Tropical storm force winds extend about 105 miles from Hermine’s center, largely on the south side of the storm.
Central Florida could get five to ten inches predicted for by Friday with isolated areas receiving up to 15 inches. Forecasters also warned that Hermine could whip up tornadoes in Central Florida late Wednesday night and in north Florida and southeast Georgia on Thursday.
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. Metro areas covered by the declaration include Tallahassee, Tampa Bay, Orlando, Gainesville, Jacksonville and the Space Coast. South Florida is "in the clear," one state official said.
Forecasters had also been keeping an eye on a second pesky depression off the Carolina coast that Wednesday evening they called “challenging.” The storm had earlier looked like it might gain strength but now appears to be losing steam and could fizzle over the next few days as it moves off the coast.
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.