TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Hurricane Hermine slammed into Florida early Friday, making landfall with a furious mix of rain, whistling winds and ocean surge.
The Category 1 storm, which had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, is the first hurricane to come ashore in the state since Wilma struck 11 years ago.
It made landfall east of St. Marks in the Big Bend area, a part of the coast where the state’s peninsula meets the Panhandle.
Residents took shelter overnight as it bore down on the region, some boarding up windows and filling sandbags to keep water away.
In Tallahassee, more than 70,000 utility customers were without power as winds and rain lashed the city.
‘You cannot rebuild a life’
Rain has pounded the Gulf Coast ahead of the storm since Wednesday, and forecasters say much more is in store.
Several counties issued mandatory evacuation notices for Gulf Coast communities on the water or in low-lying areas. A tornado watch was in effect for dozens of Florida and Georgia counties until 8 a.m. ET on Friday.
“This is life-threatening,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday as he urged residents to heed warnings. “We have a hurricane. You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life.”
A few hours before landfall, Hermine lashed Apalachicola, Tallahassee, 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.
After making landfall in Florida, it could move into southeastern Georgia early Friday, the National Hurricane Center said before landfall.
“The center should then move near or over eastern South Carolina on Friday night and near or over eastern North Carolina on Saturday,” it said.
The storm became a Category 1 hurricane Thursday afternoon, and is expected to deluge coastal Mid-Atlantic states from Virginia to New Jersey beginning early Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center.
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.
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.”
Wolfhagen feared the hurricane would cause 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.
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.
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.
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 needed to be taken down as the winds pick up.
Emergency management officials in Taylor County, along the Gulf Coast of Florida, said mandatory evacuations have been 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.
In St. Petersburg, Joanna Crandell said the water in the canal next to her home was a foot over the sea wall. But high tide won’t come until the middle of the night.
“I am sorry to say we have made no preparations for the hurricane, other than appropriate beverages, as we are only getting the outer bands,” Crandell said.
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
Farther 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.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency for 33 eastern counties.