Hurricane Hermine hits Florida, weakens into tropical storm
Hermine smashed into Florida’s Panhandle as a hurricane Friday morning before hurtling toward Georgia and the Carolinas as a tropical storm — leaving thousands without power and setting up threats of floods and dangerous riptides along parts of the East Coast through the Labor Day weekend.
The outlook in short: Tropical Storm Hermine is a flash-flooding threat in parts of the Southeast now, and could eventually sit off the Mid-Atlantic coast for days, battering shores with strong winds and storm surges.
Hermine ripped into St. Marks in Florida’s Big Bend region as a Category 1 storm just before 2 a.m., becoming the first hurricane to come ashore in the state since Wilma struck 11 years ago.
“There’s nothing open in our county right now,” sheriff’s Maj. Trey Morrison said Friday in Wakulla County, where Hermine made landfall. He’d heard a report of a driver crashing early Friday into a fallen tree.
“If it’s not an emergency, we don’t need people out,” he said.
The storm’s outer bands may have killed at least one person: A man died after being struck by a tree in north-central Florida’s Marion County, Gov. Rick Scott said Friday, but a medical examiner’s office had yet to determine whether the storm was the cause.
More than 100,000 people were left without power in the Tallahassee area, where sustained winds of up to 80 mph toppled utility poles onto the ground saturated by inches of rain.
Videos and pictures shared on social media showed damaged streets near the landfall and downed trees throughout much of the state.
Hermine’s outer bands also dropped more rain in the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas, which could ill afford it.
Floodwater lapped cars’ hubcaps in parts of St.. Petersburg, which received more than 9 inches of rain from Tuesday — before Hermine arrived — into Friday morning. More than 22,000 customers were without power in the area Friday morning, utility Duke Energy said.
Downgraded but dangerous
Hermine weakened into a tropical storm after landfall, but was moving through southern Georgia toward South and North Carolina on Friday as a flooding threat with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph.
Up to 10 inches of rain could fall in parts of Georgia and the Carolinas from Friday into Monday morning, the National Hurricane Center said.
The storm’s center could move along the Carolinas’ coast into Saturday morning before heading out into the Atlantic, where it may stall off the East Coast for days, forecasters said.
Tropical storm watches and warnings covered 30 million people Friday morning along the East Coast, from Georgia north to Connecticut.
“I don’t want folks to take the weakening of the winds to mean the hazards have gone away,” hurricane center Director Rick Knabb told CNN’s “New Day” on Friday. “The most frequent cause of loss of life (from tropical cyclones in recent decades) is from inland flooding due to heavy rainfall.”
‘Lock down the house and pray’
Before the storm made landfall in Florida, Eddie Bass, who owns a home in Alligator Point on the Panhandle, 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.
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 had to be taken down as the winds picked up.
The governor had declared a state of emergency in 51 of the state’s 67 counties. Scott told residents not to drive into standing water and to avoid downed power lines, saying crews were working hard to ensure limited disruptions.
“We have a hurricane. You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life,” he said.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal declared a state of emergency for 56 counties. And in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory issued a state of emergency for 33 eastern counties.
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.
Zika concerns dismissed
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.