Growing winds and driving rain from Hurricane Hermine lashed Florida’s northern Gulf Coast early on Friday as power outages left tens of thousands of households in the dark in what the state’s governor warned would be a potentially lethal storm.
Conditions deteriorated as Hurricane Hermine was making landfall, packing winds of 80 mph (130 km/h) with several areas in Florida already reporting 5 inches (12 cm) of rain and media reported about 270,000 households had been left without power.
“It is a mess…we have high water in numerous places,” Virgil Sandlin, the police chief in Cedar Key, Florida, told the Weather Channel. “I was here in 1985 for Hurricane Elena and I don’t recall anything this bad.”
Hurricane Hermine packed a dangerous storm surge that was expected to cause 9 feet (3 m) of flooding in some areas, as rising waters move inland from the coast, the National Hurricane Center warned in an advisory.
Hermine, expected to become the first hurricane to make landfall in Florida since Wilma in 2005, also posed a Labor Day weekend threat to states along the northern Atlantic Coast that are home to tens of millions of people.
“Hurricane Hermine is strengthening fast and it will impact the majority of our state,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said in a late-evening bulletin.
The National Weather Service issued several tornado warnings for communities throughout northern Florida on Friday as the National Hurricane Center extended a tropical storm watch to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Hermine became the fourth hurricane of the 2016 Atlantic storm season. By 11 p.m. EDT, maximum winds were listed at 80 mph (130 kph), with hurricane-force winds extending up to 45 miles (75 km) from the storm’s center.
Hermine could dump as much as 20 inches (51 cm) of rain in some parts of the state. Ocean storm surge could swell as high as 12 feet (3.6 meters).
After battering coastal Florida, Hermine is expected to weaken and move across the northern part of the state into Georgia, then southern U.S. coastal regions on the Atlantic.
The governors of Georgia and North Carolina on Thursday declared emergencies in affected regions. In South Carolina, the low-lying coastal city of Charleston was handing out sandbags.
Scott declared a state of emergency in 51 of Florida’s 67 counties, and at least 20 counties closed schools.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered in parts of five counties in northwestern Florida, with voluntary evacuations in at least three more counties. Twenty emergency shelters were opened across the state for those displaced by the storm.
“This is life-threatening,” Scott told reporters on Thursday afternoon. “You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life.”
In coastal Franklin County, people were being evacuated from barrier islands and low-lying shore areas.
“Those on higher ground are stocking up and hunkering down,” said Pamela Brownlee, the county’s emergency management director.
Towns, cities and counties were hastily preparing shelters for people and pets and placing utility repair crews on standby ahead of the storm.
The storm was expected to affect many areas inland of the Gulf Coast. In Leon County, home to the state capital of Tallahassee, more than 30,000 sandbags were distributed.
At Maximo Marina in St. Petersburg, Florida, dock master Joe Burgess watched anxiously as waters rose 6 inches (15 cm) over the dock at high tide on Thursday, before slowly receding.
“If we get hit with a real storm head on, all the provisions you can make aren’t going to matter out here,” he said, preparing to use a chainsaw to cut beams on covered slips if rising water took boats dangerously close to the roof.
“It’d be pretty catastrophic.”
On its current path, the storm also could dump as much as 10 inches (25 cm) of rain on coastal areas of Georgia, which was under a tropical storm watch, and the Carolinas. Forecasters warned of “life-threatening” floods and flash floods there.