© Reuters. Beachgoers are shown as tropical storm Nicole approaches the state in Miami Beach, Florida, U.S., November 8, 2022. Officials have warned of the possibility of severe beach erosion from the storm. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
By Brian Ellsworth and Jasper Ward
MIAMI (Reuters) -Tropical Storm Nicole reached hurricane force as it plowed into the Bahamas on Wednesday, lashing the West Indies archipelago nation with howling winds and raging surf while churning ever closer to Florida’s Atlantic shoreline.
Nicole, newly classified as a hurricane, was packing sustained winds of up 75 miles per hour (120 km per hour) as it made landfall on Grand Bahama Island, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reported.
Even before reaching hurricane strength, the storm unleashed “extensive flooding” across much of the Bahamas, including the islands of Grand Bahama, Eleuthera, Andros and the Abacos, National Emergency Management Agency chief Captain Stephen Russell said at a news conference.
Grand Bahama, Bimini and the Berry Islands in the northwest corner of the island nation remained under a hurricane warning.
As the storm closed in earlier in the day, some Bahamas residents fled their homes amid fierce winds and flooding.
Ann Wilmore, 60, of Dundas Town on the island of Abaco, evacuated her trailer and sought refuge in a nearby house. “I’m monitoring the weather very closely,” Wilmore said by phone.
The Bahamas Department of Meteorology reported a nearly 4-foot (1.2 meters) storm surge north of the town of Treasure Cay on Abaco. Waves of surf flooded at least one road in Nassau, the capital, officials said.
Florida’s east coast was buffeted from afar by tropical storm-force winds and showers in an ominous precursor to the dangerous tempest forecast for Thursday in a state still recovering from its last hurricane disaster six weeks ago.
The storm’s center was expected to pass well north of Miami, Florida’s most populous city.
But Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for 45 counties, and a hurricane warning remain posted for a 240-mile expanse of Florida’s Atlantic seaboard from Boca Raton north to around Flagler Beach.
The National Hurricane Center also issued storm-surge advisories for much of Florida’s east coast, warning that wind-driven waves of seawater were expected to wash over beaches and rush inland to flood low-lying areas well beyond the shoreline.
Storm surge caused widespread devastation to Florida’s Gulf Coast when the last major storm, Hurricane Ian, crashed ashore there on Sept. 28, causing an estimated $60 billion in damage and claiming more than 140 lives.
At a news conference on Wednesday, DeSantis urged residents to prepare.
“Please make a plan,” he said. “This is likely to be a storm making landfall and will affect huge parts of Florida tomorrow.”
Although curiosity seekers ventured outdoors during the day to catch a glimpse of the roiling, high surf, pose for tropical cyclone “selfies” or capture a video clip of the gathering storm, many were taking the situation more seriously.
“We have had a lot of flooding within the last couple of storms,” said Leanne Hansard, 53, a Daytona Beach resident who was boarding windows to her family’s insurance office. “Florida is surrounded by water on all sides, so eventually you’re going to have water.”
At the governor’s request, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved emergency protective assistance for the 45 counties most likely to be affected.
State officials opened 15 emergency shelters across the region, activated 600 National Guard troops for emergency response and recovery efforts, and placed 1,600 utility workers on standby to restore power knocked out by the storm.
More than a dozen school districts were closed on Wednesday and more than 20 school districts across the state were scheduled to be closed on Thursday.
On its forecast track, Nicole’s center was expected to continue sweeping through the northwest Bahamas on Wednesday night before approaching Florida’s Atlantic coast, where forecasters said it was likely to make landfall on Thursday, still as a hurricane.
Several counties along the Florida coast issued mandatory orders and voluntary evacuation advisories for homes near the shore and on barrier islands.
Orlando International Airport announced it was ceasing commercial operations at 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) on Wednesday.
The storm was forecast to move into southern Georgia on Thursday before moving into the Carolinas on Friday.