What is forecast to become Hurricane Nicole is bearing down on the Bahamas this morning and targeting Florida tonight with tropical-storm-force winds already moving ashore, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Thousands of Floridians are under evacuation orders as a strengthening Tropical Storm Nicole is expected to grow into a Category 1 hurricane this morning with hurricane warnings in place from the coast of Volusia-Flagler county line south to Boca Raton.
As of the 4 a.m. NHC advisory Wednesday, Nicole is located about 90 miles east of Great Abaco Island, Bahamas and 270 miles east of West Palm Beach with 70 mph sustained winds and higher gusts moving west-southwest at 13 mph. Forecasters expect the storm to turn west this morning before shifting to the northwest on Thursday.
Tropical-storm-force winds extend out 460 miles and a gust of 41 mph was recently reported at the pier in Dania Beach, Florida.
“Some strengthening is expected today, and Nicole is forecast to become a hurricane near the northwestern Bahamas and remain a hurricane when it reaches the east coast of Florida tonight,” forecasters said.
The National Weather Service in Melbourne has issued a hurricane warning for the rest of Brevard County while placing Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Sumter and inland Volusia under a tropical storm warning.
While the entire state is likely to feel the system’s high winds during the day, the center of the storm is predicted to make landfall south of Brevard County likely in Martin or St. Lucie County before moving northwest up through the state, forecasters said.
“Confidence is increasing that Nicole will make landfall along the Treasure Coast at or near hurricane strength after midnight tonight,” the NWS said in its morning advisory. “Due to the large area of strong winds extending well to the north and northwest of Nicole’s center, weather and ocean conditions will continue to steadily deteriorate today through tonight.”
With the winds stronger to the north, Central Florida will feel tropical-storm-force effects as it moves across the state.
“Stronger squalls will produce wind gusts well in excess of tropical storm force, and up to hurricane force offshore and over coastal counties, especially south of Cape Canaveral,” the NWS stated. “Increasing bands and areas of heavy rain are forecast to product rainfall totals of 3 to 5 inches, with local amounts up to 8 inches possible. Urban and poor drainage flooding is very likely, especially where the water table remains high.”
There is some threat of tornadoes that will develop this evening and increase overnight as the system moves across the peninsula, forecasters said.
While moving faster than originally forecast, the expected deluge from the storm will still prompt a flood watch for east Central Florida later this morning, the NWS stated.
“The combination of heavy rainfall and strong northeast winds could also cause additional flooding and standing water concerns over the Saint Johns River Basin, where river flood warnings remain in effect,” the NWS said. “Some areas along the Saint Johns River which are currently in flood may reach major flood stage, inundating additional areas.”
The time for preparations before dangerous conditions come to the state is coming to a close, forecasters warned.
“If you haven’t already done so, any last minute preparations for significant impacts from Nicole should be rushed to completion early this morning, before outdoor activities become dangerous,” the NWS stated.
Volusia County made mandatory evacuation orders effective at 10 a.m. that need to be completed by 4 p.m. The order applies to all residents east of the Intracoastal Waterway, manufactured home dwellers east of Interstate 95, all low-lying areas and areas prone to flooding, and all campsites and RV parks.
“This is necessary because many of our coastal properties sustained significant damage from Hurricane Ian, and with this storm’s wave runup and storm surge, some structures have increased vulnerability for further damage or collapse,” said Kevin Captain, community information director for Volusia County government.
Flagler County on Tuesday also announced mandatory evacuations beginning Wednesday on its barrier islands from Flagler Beach to Marineland as well as mobile homes, RVs and those living in low-lying areas.
Brevard County, meanwhile, recommended evacuation for residents on the barrier islands, mobile homes or manufactured housing, those in low-lying, flood-prone areas and any residents with special medical needs such as electrical dependence.
Farther south, Palm Beach County announced an evacuation of coastal neighborhoods and other vulnerable areas that apply to about 52,000 residents of mobile homes throughout the county and 67,000 coastal residents.
“We saw what happened in Lee County,” County Mayor Robert Weinroth said, referring to the storm surge from Hurricane Ian that drowned coastal residents. “There were people who stayed put because they felt that there was not an emergency, and a lot of those people regretted their decision.”
The system transitioned Tuesday morning from Subtropical Storm Nicole as it moved over warmer waters, which meant its core was able to become more defined. It gained steam from 45 mph sustained winds throughout the day reaching 70 mph by Tuesday night, just 4 mph shy of hurricane strength.
The latest path projection predicts landfall in between Boca Ratron and the Brevard-Indian River county line as a Category 1 hurricane with 75 mph sustained winds and 90 mph gusts. It’s then projected to move northwest across the state south of metro Orlando similar to how Hurricane Jeanne and Hurricane Frances crossed the state in 2004. Its center could make it into the Gulf of Mexico north of Tampa before shifting more north and making a second landfall south of Tallahassee late Thursday before moving into the southern U.S.
“Do not focus on the exact track of Nicole since it is expected to be a large storm with hazards extending well to the north of the center, outside of the forecast cone,” the NHC stated. “These hazards are likely to affect much of the Florida peninsula and portions of the southeast U.S.”
In addition to the hurricane warning that runs from southern Palm Beach County north through the Treasure and Space coasts that includes inland warnings for Brevard, Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties, a hurricane watch and concurrent tropical storm warning is in place on Florida’s east coast from Hallandale Beach to Boca Raton as well as Lake Okeechobee. Tropical storm warnings area also in place from the Volusia-Flagler county line north to the South Santee River, South Carolina and on Florida’s Gulf Coast from north of Bonita Beach to Indian Pass as well as several inland counties in South Florida including all of Palm Beach and Broward.
Before Florida, though, the system will move over the northwestern Bahamas. A hurricane warning is in place for the the Abacos, Berry Islands, Bimini and Grand Bahama Island with a tropical storm warning for the Andros Island, New Providence and Eleuthera.
Officials in the Bahamas opened more than two dozen shelters across the archipelago on Tuesday as they closed schools and government offices in Abaco, Bimini, the Berry Islands and Grand Bahama. Authorities warned that airports and seaports will close as the storm nears and not reopen until Thursday, and they urged people in shantytowns to seek secure shelter.
Communities in Abaco are expected to receive a direct hit from Nicole as they still struggle to recover from Dorian.
“We don’t have time to beg and plead for persons to move,” said Capt. Stephen Russell, emergency management authority director.
The NHC’s next intermediate advisory is at 7 a.m., and next path projection is at 10 a.m.
The coasts of Brevard and Volusia are also subject to 10-foot waves that will grow bigger as the system approaches, the NWS said.
“Numerous life-threatening rip currents will continue. The strong winds and high surf will combine with ongoing high astronomical tides to bring significant storm surge and major beach erosion around the times of the next several high tide cycles from Tuesday through Thursday,” the NWS said. “Coastal areas of Volusia County which suffered serious damage from Hurricane Ian remain particularly vulnerable to additional beach erosion and inundation from coastal flooding.”
The NHC’s storm surge warning indicated from 3 to 5 feet could be seen from North Palm Beach up to Georgia as well as 2-4 feet from the mouth of the St. Johns River inland south to Georgetown, Florida in Putnam County.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday issued a State of Emergency for 34 counties in the storm’s potential path, including all of Central Florida.
Counties in the order are Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, DeSoto, Duval, Flagler, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Manatee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Nassau, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pasco, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sumter and Volusia.
Ahead of the storm’s arrival, Brevard, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia County schools made the decision to cancel classes on Wednesday and Thursday while Lake and Orange County will close on Thursday. All schools also plan to be off Friday, which for some was already planned as a Veterans Day holiday.
Also shutting down is UCF, for both on campus and online classes, but UCF Housing will remain open and operational through the storm for all residents, and campus dining halls will remain open until 3 p.m. Wednesday. Rollins College in Winter Park opted to keep school running.
“At this time we do not expect interruptions to residential campus life,” the school posted to Twitter. “Residential halls will remain open. Faculty may offer flexible instruction & virtual learning options beginning Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. through Nov. 11.”
In Volusia County, Stetson in DeLand opted to move all classes online beginning noon Wednesday through Thursday night with students allowed to remain on campus in residential buildings, but required to shelter in place in their dorms or in the Lynn Business Center or Carlton Union Building, which both operate on generators.
SunRail will also shut down train service starting Wednesday, and won’t reopen until all of 126 crossings have been inspected along the 61.5 miles of the corridor. Both Orlando International Airport and Orlando Sanford International Airport will shut down operations beginning at 4 p.m.
Restarting flights at OIA will occur when “the situation and circumstances permit,” said airport spokesperson Carolyn Fennell.
Melbourne Orlando International Airport will close at 2 p.m. Wednesday, but anticipates reopening Thursday evening. Daytona Beach International Airport will close at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, and is scheduled to reopen at 4 a.m. Friday.
Disney World planned to close its Typhoon Lagoon water park and three miniature golf courses on Thursday while Universal said it would close its Volcano Bay water park. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex announced it would close Wednesday and Thursday with plans to reopen Friday after assessing damage.
Sentinel staff writer Leslie Postal, the Sun Sentinel and The Associated Press contributed to this report.