TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Parts of Northern and Central Florida are being hit by the first hurricane in more than a decade.
Evacuations have been ordered for several Gulf Coast communities and state parks.
“This is life-threatening,” Gov. Rick Scott said during a press conference Thursday following a midday update from the National Hurricane Center. “It’s going to impact us from Tampa Bay all the way to Pensacola.”
Scott has declared a state of emergency for 51 North and Central Florida counties in preparation for Tropical Storm Hermine, which forecasters predict will reach hurricane strength before making landfall somewhere in the Big Bend or Nature Coast late Thursday or early Friday.
“This is going to happen today. It’s going to make landfall after midnight,” Scott said. “You still have time to prepare.”
The National Hurricane Center reported midday Thursday that Hermine, with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph, was heading for the Gulf Coast in North Florida, bringing potential life-threatening storm surge and flooding rains.
“Additional strengthening is anticipated, and Hermine is expected to be a hurricane by the time landfall occurs,” the center reported at 11 a.m.
A hurricane warning was in effect from the Suwannee River to Mexico Beach, with hurricane watches in place from the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs to the Suwannee River and from Mexico Beach to the Walton-Bay County line.
Tropical-storm warnings were in place from the Anclote River to the Suwannee River, from west of Mexico Beach to the Walton-Bay line and from Marineland on the Atlantic Coast to Surf City, N.C.
Residents have been ordered out of portions of Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties.
Voluntary evacuation orders were issued in Walton, Jefferson and Gulf counties.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said people ordered out of their homes or voluntarily seeking shelter “just need to get away from where the storm surge is.”
Koon also expressed confidence that people will take warnings about the storm seriously, despite the state not getting directly hit by a hurricane since 2005.
“We have done a good deal of messaging over the last few days and we’ve seen a lot of cooperation from our broadcast partners, from the print media,” Koon said. “So I’m confident at this point that everybody who is going to be impacted by the storm is at least aware of it and understands the things they need to be safe.”
The state has 6,000 Florida National Guard members ready to deploy and has prepared other relief efforts for after the storm, Scott said.
Meanwhile, Scott ordered state offices to close at noon Thursday in 51 counties. No decision was made on opening the offices Friday.
The counties in Scott’s order are: Alachua, Baker, Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Calhoun, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lake, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Okaloosa, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Volusia, Wakulla, Walton and Washington.
Also in Tallahassee, Florida State University and Florida A&M University canceled classes for Thursday and Friday. In addition, the Florida Supreme Court and the 1st District Court of Appeal closed at noon Thursday and will remain closed Friday.
(The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.)
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