Officials issued the first hurricane watch in four years for the west coast of Florida on Wednesday, as Tropical Storm Hermine strengthened and continued its slow churn toward the state.
In preparation for the storm in Florida, coastal residents have been evacuated, schools and colleges are closed Thursday and Friday, and officials have opened shelters for evacuees.
The storm is forecast to hit somewhere along the Big Bend area of Florida on Thursday afternoon either as a strong tropical storm or a weak hurricane. If it attains hurricane strength before landfall, it would be the first hurricane to hit Florida in 11 years.
Heavy rain, storm surge, high winds and tornadoes are all a concern with the storm. Rainfall amounts of 5 to 10 inches are possible over portions of central and northern Florida through Friday, with isolated maximum amounts of 15 inches possible, the National Hurricane Center said. That high volume could trigger flash flooding.>
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in 42 Florida counties ahead of the system's main impacts on the state. About 8,000 Florida National Guard troops are ready to be deployed if needed, Scott added.
The last hurricane to hit Florida was Hurricane Wilma in October 2005. Wilma killed 5 people in the U.S. and did more than $20 billion in damages. Since Wilma hit Florida, the state's population has risen by about 2 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Since 2010 alone, the number of residents in the state grew by 7.8%.
As of 5 p.m. ET, Hermine was about 325 south-southwest of Apalachicola with sustained winds of 45 mph, upgrading its status from a tropical depression earlier Wednesday and granting its name. It was moving north-northeast at 7 mph. If winds reach 74 mph, Hermine will become a hurricane.
Officials urged residents and businesses along the coast to rapidly make preparations, from boarding up windows to sandbagging areas around their homes and buildings.
Coastal surge as high as 6 feet could hit from Gulf to Pasco counties, the hurricane center said. Tornadoes are also possible late Wednesday into Thursday morning, mainly across central Florida.
A tropical storm warning was issued for portions of the Gulf Coast, and a tropical storm watch was in place for the East Coast of Florida and Georgia for when the storm crosses into the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, Tropical Depression Eight continued to move away from the North Carolina coast Wednesday. All watches and warnings for the system have been dropped.