Florida braces for 'life-threatening' Tropical Storm Hermine

CEDAR KEY, Fla. (AP) — People on Florida's Gulf Coast put up shutters, nailed plywood across storefronts and braced Thursday for Tropical Storm Hermine, which the state's governor called potentially life-threatening as forecasters said it could strike land as a hurricane.

A hurricane warning was in effect for Florida's Big Bend from the Suwannee River to Mexico Beach. And on the East Coast, a tropical storm warning was issued for an area extending from Marineland, Florida, northward to the South Santee River in South Carolina.

Georgia's governor declared a state of emergency for 56 counties through Saturday, in anticipation of high water and strong winds.

In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference that authorities expect strong storm surge, high winds, downed trees and power outages when Hermine comes ashore either later Thursday or early Friday. He urged residents to take precautions immediately — moving to inland shelters if necessary — and ensuring they have sufficient food, water and medicine.

"This is a life-threatening situation," Scott said. "It's going to be a lot of risk. Right now, I want everybody to be safe."

Scott added that 6,000 National Guard members in Florida are ready to mobilize after the storm passes.

Hermine's maximum sustained winds Thursday afternoon were near 70 mph (113 kph). The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Hermine was likely to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane by the time it lands in Florida on Thursday night or early Friday.

As of 1 p.m. EDT Thursday, Hermine was centered about 190 miles (306 kilometers) west of Tampa, Florida, and was moving north-northeast near 14 mph (23 kph).

Residents in some low-lying Florida communities were being asked to evacuate Thursday as the storm approached. The Tallahassee Democrat (http://on.tdo.com/2c2jFxe ) reported that emergency management officials in Franklin County have issued a mandatory evacuation notice for people living on St. George Island, Dog Island, Alligator Point and Bald Point. Residents in other low-lying, flood-prone areas were also being asked to evacuate.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott ordered state government offices in 51 counties to close at noon Thursday. The order included the state capital of Tallahassee, home to tens of thousands of state workers. The city, roughly 35 miles from the coast, has not had a direct hit by hurricane in 30 years.

The last hurricane to strike Florida was Hurricane Wilma, which entered the state from along southwest Gulf Coast as a major Category 3 storm on Oct. 24, 2005. It swept across the Everglades and struck highly-populated south Florida, causing 5 deaths in the state and an estimated $23 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Residents were out in force Thursday morning preparing for the storm and stores were already running low on bottled water and flashlights. City crews were struggling to keep up with demand for sand with sandbags.

Flooding is expected across a wide swath of the Big Bend area, which has a mostly marshy coastline. Florida's Big Bend area extends from just east of the Apalachicola River in the Panhandle to roughly the Cedar Key area, west of Gainesville. It's made up of mostly rural communities and smaller cities away from Interstate 10 and Interstate 75.

On Cedar Key, a small island, about a dozen people were going from storefront to storefront putting up shutters and nailing pieces of plywood to protect businesses from the wind.

One of them, Joe Allen, spray painted on plywood in large black letters: "Bring it on, Hermine." Despite the bravado, he said, "I'm worried. You can never fully protect yourself from nature."

Chris Greaves and family members stopped in Tallahassee to pick up sandbags for his garage and the church they attend.

Greaves says he lived in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew devastated the region in 1992. While he doesn't expect the same kind of widespread damage, he isn't taking any chances.

He said tropical weather is "nothing to mess with," adding "you still take precautions."

In South Carolina, news outlets reported that high school football games in many areas will be played Thursday night because Hermine was expected to bring heavy rains to the state Friday.

In Charleston County, emergency officials have a message for residents: Stay home on Friday. The storm is expected to flood streets in the Charleston area which can see high tide flooding even on sunny days.


Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro and Curt Anderson in Miami; Gary Fineout in Tallahassee, Florida; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; and Bruce Smith, in from Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.