MIAMI — Tropical Storm Nicole forced people from their homes in the Bahamas and threatened to grow into a rare November hurricane in Florida on Wednesday, shutting down airports and Disney World as well as prompting evacuation orders that included former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.
Early Wednesday, President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state, tribal and local response efforts to the approaching storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still responding to those in need from Hurricane Ian.
Hundreds of people sought shelter in the northwestern Bahamas before the approaching storm, which had already sent seawater washing across roads on Hutchinson Island in Martin County, Florida.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the center of the sprawling storm make landfall on Great Abaco with estimated maximum sustained winds of 70 mph.
“We are forecasting it to become a hurricane as it nears the northwestern Bahamas, and remain a hurricane as it approaches the east coast of Florida,” Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said Wednesday.
Nicole is the first storm to hit the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the archipelago in 2019, before hitting storm-weary Florida.
In the Bahamas, officials said that more than 520 people were in more than two dozen shelters. Flooding and power outages were reported in Abaco island.
“We are asking people to please take it (seriously),” said Andrea Newbold with the Disaster Management Unit for Social Services. “Don’t wait until the last minute.”
Residents in several Florida counties — Flagler, Palm Beach, Martin and Volusia — were ordered to evacuate from barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes.
Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club and home, is in one of those evacuation zones, built about a quarter-mile inland from the ocean. The main buildings sit on a small rise that is about 15 feet (4.6 meters) above sea level and the property has survived numerous stronger hurricanes since it was built nearly a century ago. The resort’s security office hung up Wednesday when an Associated Press reporter asked whether the club was being evacuated.
There is no penalty for ignoring an evacuation order, but rescue crews will not respond if it puts their members at risk.
Disney World and related theme parks announced they were closing early on Wednesday evening and likely would not reopen as scheduled on Thursday.
Palm Beach International Airport closed Wednesday morning, and Daytona Beach International Airport said it would cease operations at 12:30 p.m. Orlando International Airport, the seventh busiest in the U.S., was set to close at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Further south, officials said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport were experiencing some flight delays and cancellations but both planned to remain open.
At a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said winds were the biggest concern and and significant power outages could occur, but that 16,000 linemen were on standby to restore power, as well as 600 guardsmen and seven search and rescue teams.
“It will affect huge parts of the state of Florida all day,” DeSantis said of the storm’s expected landing.
Almost two dozen school districts were closing schools for the storm and 15 shelters had opened along Florida’s east coast, the governor said.
Florida Division of Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie said Floridians should expect possible tornadoes, rip currents and flash flooding.
Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis, who is at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, said he has mobilized all government resources.
“There have always been storms, but as the planet warms from carbon emissions, storms are growing in intensity and frequency,” he said. “For those in Grand Bahama and Abaco, I know it is especially difficult for you to face another storm,” Davis said, referring to the islands hardest hit by Dorian.
At 11:55 a.m. the storm was about 185 miles (300 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach, Florida, and moving west at 12 mph.
Tropical storm force winds extended as far as 460 miles (740 kilometers) from the center in some directions.
It could intensify into a rare November hurricane before hitting Florida, where only two have made landfall since recordkeeping began in 1853 — the 1935 Yankee Hurricane and Hurricane Kate in 1985.
New warnings and watches were issued for many parts of Florida, including the southwestern Gulf coastline which was devastated by Hurricane Ian, which struck as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28. The storm destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state.
Ian lashed much of the central region of Florida with heavy rainfall, causing flooding that many residents are still dealing with as Nicole approaches.
In Florida, the “combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the hurricane center’s advisory said.
Hurricane specialist Brown said the storm will affect a large part of the state.
“Because the system is so large, really almost the entire east coast of Florida except the extreme southeastern part and the Keys is going to receive tropical storm force winds,” he said.
The storm is then expected to move across central and northern Florida into southern Georgia on Thursday, forecasters said. It was then forecast to move across the Carolinas on Friday.
“We are going to be concerned with rainfall as we get later into the week across portions of the southeastern United States and southern Appalachians, where there could be some flooding, flash flooding with that rainfall,” Brown said.
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