Residents along a long curve of the Florida Gulf Coast scrambled to evacuate Thursday as Hurricane Hermine intensified in the Gulf of Mexico and the state braced for the Category 1 storm.
Hermine is the first hurricane to strike the state since Wilma hit just south of Marco Island in southwest Florida in 2005, killing five people and causing $20 billion in damage.
“The bottom line is this hurricane is life-threatening,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a noon briefing at the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “We have not had a hurricane in years. … We’re going to have storm surge, wind, rain. We’re going to have flooding. All of this together, and parts of it by itself, is life-threatening.”
As the National Weather Service in Tallahassee forecast a storm tide of up to 9 feet that could lead to flooding, mandatory evacuations were in effect across low-lying, coastal areas of Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties. Voluntary evacuations were issued along the coast of Walton, Gulf and Jefferson counties.
Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency for 51 counties on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency for 56 counties in south, central and coastal Georgia.
“We’re right in the target, directly in the bull’s-eye,” said Steve Spradley, director of emergency management for Florida’s Taylor County, as a slow, steady rain soaked his region in the bend of the panhandle. “It’s quiet. We’re just sitting and waiting and planning.”
By the middle of Thursday afternoon, Spradley said, his county’s local shelter was deserted. With an evacuation order already in place for 24 hours, many residents of the fishing communities across the coast had already pulled their RVs and boats to higher ground and evacuated to family and friends’ homes. Summer homes on stilts were abandoned.
The National Hurricane Center predicted steady intensification during the next 24 hours, with danger of “life-threatening inundation” from Aripeka to Indian Pass. The storm was declared a hurricane around 3 p.m. local time.