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Meteorologist Howard Bernstein tracks Tropical Storm Hermine, which is expected to make its way up the East Coast over the weekend.

Tropical Storm Hermine continued to strengthen Thursday as it barreled toward the Gulf Coast of Florida, where it’s expected to make landfall as a hurricane by early Friday.

It would be the state’s first hit from a hurricane since Wilma on Oct. 24, 2005, a record storm-free streak of 3,965 days.

“The most important thing we all must put in our minds is that this is life threatening,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott told reporters at the Florida Emergency Management Center. “We have not had a hurricane in years, people have moved here and we have visitors.”

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%. That’s a huge chunk of new Floridians who’ve never endured a hurricane.

As of 1 p.m., ET, Hermine was located 135 miles south-southwest of Apalachicola, Fla., with winds of 70 mph. It was moving to the north-northeast at 14 mph. A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when winds reach 74 mph. A hurricane warning is in effect for the Big Bend area of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

In advance of the storm, Scott declared a state of emergency. A mandatory evacuation notice was issued for Franklin County, located along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico on the Florida Panhandle. Several Florida schools announced closings on Thursday or Friday due to the storm.

Hurricane conditions are expected to reach the coast beginning late Thursday, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. Winds will reach tropical storm strength by this afternoon, making outside preparations difficult or dangerous, it warned.

Residents and people with vacation homes began leaving the area Thursday. Robert Glazer spent the past two days getting his ocean-front home prepared. He stopped in Panacea, Fla., to get ice after taking his 28-foot Contender named “Elvis” out of the water. He said his biggest worry is storm surge.

“I’m preparing for a pretty big mess,” he said.

Scott said his top concern was storm surge, which could trap people in their homes as Hermine passes overhead.

“We will come get you but we cannot do anything during the storm,” he said. “That’s why you need to take action.”

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Hermine is expected to make landfall just after midnight near Apalachicola.

Storm surge flooding in some areas along the Gulf Coast could reach up to 8 feet. There is a danger of life-threatening inundation within the next 36 hours, the hurricane center said.

The tropical-storm-force winds are expected to down trees and cause widespread power outages, the National Weather Service in Tallahassee said.

Tornadoes could spin out of the system as it makes landfall, the weather service warned. Florida cities at risk for twisters include Tampa, Orlando, Ocala, Melbourne, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Tallahassee, according to AccuWeather. The greatest threat for tornadoes is Thursday afternoon, the Storm Prediction Center forecast.

Areas on the western side of the storm could see between 10 and 15 inches of rain while east of it rainfall totals could reach 20 inches, potentially leading to flash flooding.

By Friday and Saturday, Hermine or its remnants will bring rain and wind to the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic coasts, though the exact track of the storm remains uncertain. Tropical storm watches have been issued for Myrtle Beach, S.C., and for Wrightsville Beach and Surf City in North Carolina.

In the Pacific Ocean, Tropical Storm Madeline narrowly missed hitting the Big Island of Hawaii overnight, though Hurricane Lester could still impact the island chain over the weekend, according to the Central Pacific Hurricane Center.

Contributing: The Tallahassee Democrat, Naples Daily News

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