Hurricane Nicole downgraded as it ravages Florida

More than 230,000 homes and businesses in central Florida were without power on Thursday as Hurricane Nicole, weakened to a tropical storm but still large and dangerous, slammed the region with strong winds and heavy rain.

The rare November hurricane, which made landfall south of Vero Beach Thursday as a Category 1 storm, was centered about 30 miles southwest of Orlando at 7 a.m. flooding over a swath of the southeast over the next few days.

“This is a life-threatening situation,” Jack Beven, a senior hurricane specialist at the Hurricane Center, wrote in an advisory. The people of the region, he said, “should take all necessary measures to protect lives and property from rising water and the potential for other dangerous conditions.”

A tornado watch has been issued for parts of Florida and Georgia. Nicole — a large system of tropical storm-force winds extending outward for 450 miles — moved west-northwest at 23 mph, and forecasters predicted a north turn.

Nicole’s center would appear over the far northeastern Gulf of Mexico later Thursday. The storm is expected to cross the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and the Carolinas on Friday, according to the National Hurricane Center. Heavy rainfall can flood parts of the region.

New warnings and warnings were issued for many parts of Florida, including the southwestern Gulf shoreline that was devastated by Hurricane Ian when it broke as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28. Ian destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state​—damage that many are still dealing with.

Airports and theme parks are closed and a large number of evacuations, including former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

As a tropical storm, Nicole first made landfall on Great Abaco Island in the northwest Bahamas at 11:55 a.m. Wednesday. The storm reportedly had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph.

Officials in the Bahamas said more than 860 people were in more than two dozen shelters. Major floods, fallen trees, and power and water outages were reported in the northwestern region of the archipelago.

Nicole strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday, hitting Florida with sustained winds of 75 mph, the first hurricane to make landfall on Florida’s east coast this late in the year.

In Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that Nicole’s storm surge has breached the seawall along Indian River Drive, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. The Martin County Sheriff’s Office also said seawater had breached part of a road on Hutchinson Island.

Residents in several Florida counties — Flagler, Palm Beach, Martin and Volusia — were ordered to evacuate such barrier islands, lowland areas and mobile homes. Volusia, home to Daytona Beach, imposed a curfew, warning that intercoastal bridges used by evacuees would close if winds reach 63 mph.

About 400 people checked into evacuation centers in Palm Beach County on Wednesday.

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States affected by Nicole

Nicole is expected to affect most of Florida and parts of the southeastern region of the US. Nicole’s center is expected to move through central and northern Florida to southern Georgia Thursday night and then to the Carolinas on Friday.

Forecasters predicted tornadoes from Wednesday night through Thursday in East Florida, Southeast Georgia and South South Carolina. Heavy rainfall is the main concern and Nicole could set off a dangerous storm surge of up to 1.5 meters in areas along the Florida and Georgia coasts.

Several communities on Florida’s east coast were called or ordered to evacuate. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that 15 shelters were opening along the state’s coast.

DeSantis said the Florida National Guard has activated 600 guards, in addition to seven urban search and rescue teams on standby.

President Joe Biden also approved federal emergency aid to 45 of Florida’s 67 counties, along with the Miccosukee Tribe and Seminole Tribe.

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What damage can Nicole do?

Category 1 hurricanes can damage houses, trees and power lines. DeSantis said Floridians can expect power outages. About 16,000 line workers are prepared to restore power.

At least six-story coastal residential buildings in Daytona Beach Shores that were already damaged by Hurricane Ian are under threat from Nicole, according to local officials.

Wind gusts north of Nicole’s eye between 60 and 80 mph will occur, with gusts close to 100 mph possible, according to AccuWeather. Under these conditions, structural damage can occur and sporadic power outages can be hundreds of miles from where Nicole’s center makes landfall.

Hurricane Nicole tracker

Contributions: The Associated Press