Hurricane Hermine hits Florida, weakens into tropical storm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Hurricane Hermine made landfall early Friday in Florida with a furious mix of rain, whistling winds and surging waves — then weakened into a tropical storm as it wobbled toward Georgia.

Hermine, which had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, was the first hurricane to come ashore in Florida since Wilma struck 11 years ago.

It made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane in the Big Bend area, a part of the Gulf Coast where the state’s peninsula meets the Panhandle.

In Tallahassee, more than 100,000 utility customers were without power as winds and rain lashed the city, according to the mayor’s office.

Downgraded

A few hours after landfall, Hermine had weakened into a tropical storm, according to the National Hurricane Center.

All hurricane watches and warnings were dropped, but tropical storm warnings remained for parts of the Florida Gulf Coast, Georgia and up through North Carolina.

By dawn Friday, the tropical storm was 20 miles west of Valdosta, Georgia, and moving north at 14 mph, according to the hurricane center.

“This motion is expected to continue today and Saturday,” the center said. “On the forecast track, the center of Hermine should continue to move farther inland across southeastern Georgia today and into the Carolinas tonight and Saturday.”

Its maximum sustained winds decreased to 70 mph, with additional weakening forecast as it moves farther inland.

‘You cannot rebuild a life’

After its short reign as a hurricane, it’s expected to spawn a few tornadoes in northern Florida and southern Georgia. A tornado watch was in effect for dozens of Florida and Georgia counties until 8 a.m. ET Friday.

In Florida, life-threatening flooding remains a risk as rain has pounded the Gulf Coast since Wednesday. Forecasters say much more is in store.

Hermine could bring up to 10 inches of additional rainfall to some places, including Tallahassee — with up to 15 inches possible in some areas, forecasters said.

Several Florida counties issued mandatory evacuation notices for Gulf Coast communities on the water or in low-lying areas.

Parts of Georgia also are expected to get up to 10 inches of rain over the weekend.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday urged residents to heed warnings about the storm. “We have a hurricane. You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life.”

He told residents not to drive into standing water and to avoid downed power lines, saying crews were working hard to ensure limited disruptions.

“We have 6,000 members of the national guard ready to be mobilized,” he said.

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.

Hours before landfall, Hermine was lashing Apalachicola, St. Petersburg and other cities.

The surge of ocean water could be as high as 9 feet above normal levels, forecasters said, as authorities warned its effect was not limited to Florida.

The storm is expected to deluge coastal Mid-Atlantic states from Virginia to New Jersey, beginning early Saturday, the hurricane center said.

The National Weather Service 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.

‘Lock down the house and pray’

In Apalachicola, on the Panhandle coast, contractors Lake Smith and Joshua Wolfhagen boarded up windows 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.”

Eddie Bass, who owns a home in Alligator Point, said he wasn’t boarding it up despite worries about the storm surge.

“It’s not much you can do. You just got to bring everything you can. Lock down the house and pray,” he said.

In Panama City, a popular Labor Day destination, organizers canceled one of the major tourist draws, the Gulf Coast Jam. Officials said the stage for the three-day country music event had to be taken down as the winds picked up.

Emergency management officials in Taylor County said mandatory evacuations were ordered for coastal communities. Nearby Wakulla County also had mandatory evacuations for low-lying areas.

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.

Zika concerns dismissed

The storm may leave behind large areas of standing water, but one expert said 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 disease-spreading (mosquitoes),” said Ben Beard of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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.

Other states declare emergencies

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties.

And in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency for 33 eastern counties.