Most powerful storm in a decade slams Florida; first death investigated as region assesses damage – Los Angeles Times
Hermine, the first hurricane to strike Florida in more than a decade, made landfall on the Florida Gulf Coast early Friday morning, pummeling small seaside towns with powerful 80 mph winds and heavy rain.
The Category 1 hurricane crashed ashore early Friday near St. Marks, a tiny town with a population of less than 300, in the low-lying, marshy Big Bend area, where the state’s peninsula meets the Panhandle.
In St. Marks, the storm surge flooded the Riverside Café, the Sweet Magnolia Inn and Bo Lynn’s Grocery, the community’s only market. Yet it did not reach the post office as it did when Hurricane Kate swept through the region in 1985.
“It just came up like a torrent, like you’re on the river rapids,” said Denise Waters, owner of the Sweet Magnolia Inn, which began to fill with 18 inches of water around dusk Thursday night. Stormwater pooled in all the lower rooms, damaging her etched-glass doors and baby grand piano, and leaving mud all over her baseboards.
“Oh, boy, it’s a mess, for sure,” Waters said, as her husband, Andy, drove 15 miles to visit his 92-year-old mother, who had taken refuge in a hotel. “I don’t know what we’re going to do, as she needs oxygen and all the hotels have lost power.”
After pounding through a mostly undeveloped area of Wakulla County, full of national wildlife refuges and forests, Hermine stormed into the state’s capital of Tallahassee, which has a population of more than 181,000.
Hermine felled trees and limbs and knocked down power lines, blocking roads and cutting off power to more than 253,000 utility customers across Florida.
About 100 miles south of St. Marks in Cedar Key, a historical coastal resort with a population of 700, a nine-foot storm surge swept through the raw bars and seafood restaurants that serve tourists on Dock Street, flooded City Hall and wiped out the walls of an older apartment complex building.
“This is by far the worst storm I’ve ever experienced in my 34 years of living here,” said Virgil Sandlin, Cedar Key’s police chief, who estimated that about 300 people had experienced damage to their homes and businesses. “It’s worse than the storm of the century.”
Yet there were few reports of fatalities or injuries. In Marion County in Central Florida, a homeless man was hit by a tree, but officials were waiting for the coroner to confirm the death was storm-related.
At least 59 shelters were operational in Florida on Thursday night, serving approximately 400 people, the American Red Cross reported. Five shelters were open in Georgia, accommodating 140 people.
“We got a little less rain than we thought,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a Friday morning news briefing. “What I worry about now is people driving in standing water, people touching power lines. … We need to be careful. By the end of the day, hopefully a lot of this will be cleaned up.”
In Tallahassee, a tree fell on Amy Parks’ brick home about 11:45 p.m. Thursday, creating a 10-by-10-foot hole in the middle of her living room and another in her kitchen. As rain poured through the roof, flooding her home, her husband and a friend emptied buckets through the night.
“We have six kids sleeping on mattresses in the hallway right now,” she said in an interview with local television station WCTV. “The house is actually flooding, so we’ve grabbed pillows, blankets, couch cushions, anything we can to try to stop flooding from coming into the hallway where the children are.”
As the hurricane traveled north, residents were urged to remain indoors and not travel unless absolutely necessary as crews from the Florida Department of Transportation cleared debris and fallen trees from roads.
A few hours after landfall, Hermine weakened into a tropical storm as it moved farther inland toward Georgia, according to the National Hurricane Center. At 11 a.m. EDT, it was about 55 miles west-southwest of Savannah, Ga., with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. Hermine is forecast to move up into the Carolinas late Friday and Saturday, with tropical-storm-force winds extending outward up to 175 miles from the center.
Tropical storm warnings were extended northward, all the way to Fenwick Island, Del. Major Northern cities, such as New York City and Long Island, are under a tropical storm watch.
Hermine is the first hurricane to strike Florida since Wilma hit just south of Marco Island in the southwestern part of the state in 2005, killing five people and causing $20 billion in damage.
Governors in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina have declared states of emergency in a swath of counties: Scott listed for 51 Florida counties, Gov. Nathan Deal assigned 56 Georgia counties and Gov. Pat McCrory labeled 33 North Carolina counties.
Friday morning, the Weather Channel reported that 16 million people were under a tropical storm warning, and 6 million were under a tropical storm watch.
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
11 a.m.: This article was updated with details of damage in Cedar Key.
This article was originally published at 9:08 a.m.