Tropical Storm Hermine takes aim at Florida, expected to turn into hurricane

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Tropical Storm Hermine marched across the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, with the National Hurricane Center predicting the storm will make landfall late Thursday or early Friday in the Florida Panhandle.

Tropical Storm Hermine could be a Category 1 hurricane by the time it hits Florida’s northern Gulf coast early Friday if forecasts hold, which would make it the state’s first hurricane in 11 years, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm, spinning in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday morning, threatens to slam into the Panhandle area or just south of it after midnight, bringing heavy rain and possible dangerous storm surges.

If Hermine becomes a hurricane, it would be the first to hit the state since Wilma in 2005.

“It is crucial that every Floridian has a plan in place to ensure their families, homes and businesses are fully prepared,” Gov. Rick Scott said in declaring the state of emergency for 51 of the state’s 67 counties. He ordered all state offices in those 51 counties to close Thursday by noon.

Rain has been pounding Florida’s coast ahead of the storm since Wednesday, and much more is in store — Hermine could bring up to 10 inches of additional rainfall to areas including the capital, Tallahassee, before dumping more of the same in parts of Georgia and the eastern Carolinas, forecasters said.

Storm surges and tides could present their own life-threatening problems, potentially pushing 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.

Hermine’s center is forecast to pack sustained winds of around 75 mph — just above minimal hurricane strength — by the time it hits the coast, the hurricane center said. Hurricane conditions could reach the Panhandle region Thursday night, ahead of landfall.

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

Catfish in the front yard

Some places, like Marco Island, were already dealing with high water in the streets. A few residents said they caught catfish in their flooded front yards, CNN affiliate WZVN reported earlier this week.

“Craziest thing I ever saw,” Darrin Palumbo told the station Tuesday. “We were driving home from school, and the road was flipping around and moving. We finally figured out there was a bunch of catfish flopping around the road.”

The town of Largo in Pinellas County experienced heavy flooding, with six families having to move out after water invaded their apartments, CNN affiliate WFTS reported.

People in Spring Hill, in Pasco County, 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 is seen paddleboarding down a street. A photo from Holmes Beach showed a woman floating on an air mattress in her driveway.

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In Anna Maria Beach, cars were splashing as they drove through hubcap-high water in the street.

Two Florida 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 reported.

Ten offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were also evacuated ahead of the storm.

NFL preseason game changed

In Tampa, the Buccaneers’ final preseason NFL game against the Washington Redskins was moved from Thursday night to Wednesday so that the game could be played well before the storm’s arrival.

Other parts of Florida were already feeling Hermine’s effects. In Pinellas County, the southwest county that is home to Clearwater and St. Petersburg, schools were closed for Thursday, and a flood warning was in effect. Nearby Manatee County also closed schools.

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. Early Thursday, its maximum sustained winds were near 65 mph.

Hermine will become a hurricane if its sustained wind speeds top 74 mph.

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