Florida started stacking sandbags as Tropical Storm Hermine intensified Thursday afternoon.
In a 1 p.m. update, National Hurricane Center forecasters said Hermine’s sustained winds increased to 70 mph, just shy of a Category 1 hurricane, with tropical storm force winds now expected to spread further south. The storm was located 135 miles southwest of Apalachicola and moving north, northeast at 14 mph. Tropical storm force winds extended 185 miles to the northeast and southeast from the storm’s east side.
North Florida could begin feeling hurricane conditions Thursday night, forecasters said, with a storm surge possibly pushing water as high as eight feet in parts of the Panhandle. Thursday afternoon, the Florida Highway Patrol closed the Skyway bridge as winds picked up, the Bradenton Herald reported. Mandatory evacuations in coastal neighborhoods were also ordered as water started to creep across roads.
On its current track, Hermine is expected to come ashore in the state’s Big Bend with hurricane strength winds possibly reaching 75 mph. A large swath of the coast is already seeing a foot of surge from the storm.
A hurricane warning was expanded earlier Thursday to include Tallahassee, and now stretches from the Suwanee River to Mexico Beach, south of Panama City. A tropical storm warning covered the Panhandle and was extended Thursday afternoon to include the Tampa and St. Petersburg area and south along the east coast to the Volusia and Flagler county lines.
Already Hermine was generating big waves, with some buoys recording heights recording over 16 feet.
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 have been ordered to leave their homes in the county.
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,” he said.
Hermine could push ashore a dangerous surge that, if it arrives at high tide, has the potential to trigger widespread flooding. Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters reported up to a foot of surge had already spread across the coast from Naples to New Orleans. On Thursday, water levels at Cedar Key reached two feet, he said.
Storm surge warnings were issued for much of the region, with water levels predicted to reach up to eight feet in some areas of the Panhandle and up to four feet in Tampa Bay.
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.
Once Hermine crosses inland, forecasters expect it to weaken but computer models show strong winds continuing east of the storm’s center.
In a morning press conference, Gov. Rick Scott warned people living in evacuation areas to heed orders and not delay leaving. Scott 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 also 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 was rising at a manageable level.
If Hermine arrives as a hurricane, it will be the state’s first since Wilma in 2005, ending a decade-long streak. 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.