CEDAR KEY, Fla. -- Hurricane Herminelate Thursday, sending battering waves against docks and boathouses as the state braced for its first direct hit from a hurricane in over a decade.
The National Hurricane Center said the storm’s top sustained winds clocked 80 mph by nightfall after the former tropical storm gained strength. As the storm bore down on northwest Florida, the center’s 11 p.m. EDT statement, said Hermine’s eye would come ashore within “the new few hours.”
Hermine’s landfall was expected by early Friday in the Big Bend area -- the mostly rural and lightly populated corner where the Florida peninsula meets the Panhandle -- then drop back down to a tropical storm and push into Georgia, the Carolinas and up the East Coast with the potential for drenching rain and deadly flooding.
The Miami-based center says the storm poses a risk of life-threatening storm surge and flooding from heavy rains. Some slight strengthening is expected before it makes landfall and then weakening will begin after it crosses the coast.
Overnight in Sarasota, voluntary evacuations were underway, CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca reported. Emergency crews navigated through waist-deep water looking for anyone possibly trapped.
“Officers were actually, they were coming up to me and their gun belts are underwater,” Sarasota Police Lt. Lori Jaress said before gesturing to her stomach. “They are actually up to here in water.”
Near Panama City Beach, residents are getting ready for soaking rain, Villafranca reported.
Shawn Cubbedge is shutting down his seaside business early to prepare for the estimated 20 inches of rain the storm could drop.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott warned of the danger of strong storm surge, high winds, downed trees and power outages, and he urged people to move to inland shelters if necessary and make sure they have enough food, water and medicine.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” Scott said. “It’s going to be a lot of risk. Right now, I want everybody to be safe.”
Scott added that 6,000 National Guardsmen in Florida are ready to mobilize after the storm passes. Georgia’s governor declared a state of emergency for 56 counties through Saturday, in anticipation of high water and strong winds.
In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency for 33 counties in the eastern part of the state.
Residents on some islands and other low-lying, flood-prone areas were urged to clear out. And the governor ordered many state government offices to close at noon.
The order included the state capital of Tallahassee, home to tens of thousands of state employees. The city, roughly 35 miles from the coast, has not had a direct hit from a hurricane in 30 years.
The last hurricane to strike Florida was Wilma, a powerful Category 3 storm that hit on Oct. 24, 2005. It swept across the Everglades and struck highly populated South Florida, causing five deaths in the state and an estimated $23 billion in damage.
On Thursday, residents were out in force preparing for the storm, and stores began running low on bottled water and flashlights. City crews struggled to keep up with demand for sand with sandbags.
Flooding was expected across a wide swath of the Big Bend area, which has a mostly marshy coastline and is made up of mostly rural communities and small towns.
On Cedar Key, a small island, about a dozen people went from storefront to storefront, putting up shutters and nailing pieces of plywood to protect businesses from the wind.
One of them, Joe Allen, spray-painted on plywood in large black letters: “Bring it on, Hermine.” Despite the bravado, he said, “I’m worried. You can never fully protect yourself from nature.”
Chris Greaves and family members stopped in Tallahassee to pick up sandbags for his garage and the church they attend. Greaves said he lived in South Florida when Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992. While he said he doesn’t expect the same kind of widespread damage, he warned that tropical weather is “nothing to mess with.”
In South Carolina, Friday night high school football games in many areas were moved up to Thursday night because Hermine was expected to bring heavy rain on Friday.
The storm is expected to flood streets in the Charleston area, which can see flooding at high tide even on sunny days.