Tropical Storm Nicole headed toward the northwestern Bahamas and Florida’s Atlantic coast on Tuesday, gradually gaining strength as it approached hurricane strength, forecasters said.
Nicole reached 70 mph (110 kph) Tuesday evening, just shy of 74 mph (119 kph) to become a Category 1 hurricane.
A number of warnings and watches remain in effect. Many areas are still reeling from damage from Hurricane Ian, which slammed into Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm in late September before dumping heavy rain across much of the central state. Forecasters said heavy rain could hit areas still recovering from the Yang floods.
Hurricane warnings are in effect for the Abacos, Berry, Bimini and Grand Bahama Islands, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Other areas of the Bahamas, including Andros Island, Nova Scotia and Eleuthera, remain under a tropical storm warning.
Residents in at least three Florida counties — Flagler, Palm Beach and Volusia — were ordered to evacuate from barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes. Evacuation orders will go into effect on Wednesday. Officials at Orlando International Airport, the seventh-busiest in the US, said commercial operations would be halted Wednesday afternoon until it was safe to resume flights.
“This coming storm is a direct threat to both property and life,” said Volusia County Executive George Rectenwald. “Our infrastructure, especially along the coastline, is very vulnerable because of Hurricane Yang.”
There were long lines at gas stations and grocery stores in the Bahamas earlier Tuesday, said Elian Hall, who works at a hotel on Great Abaco Island.
“We just killed it,” she said of the hotel, adding that the impact of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that hit in 2019, is still fresh in many people’s minds. “We’re still affected,” she said.
Authorities said they were particularly concerned about those now living in about 100 motorhomes in Grand Bahama after Dorian destroyed their homes, as well as the migrant community in Great Abacus Harbor, which according to Capt. Stephen Russell, director of the emergencies, has grown from 50 acres (20 ha) to 200 acres (81 ha) since Darian’s time. The former Haitian migrant community was one of the hardest hit by the 2019 storm, given the large number of rickety buildings in which many lived.
The hurricane center said the storm’s track shifted slightly northward overnight, but the exact path remains uncertain as it nears Florida, where it is expected to make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane late Wednesday or early Thursday.
By Tuesday evening, hurricane warnings were issued for much of Florida’s Atlantic coast, from Boca Raton to north of Daytona Beach. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for other parts of the Florida coast as far south as Altamaha Bay, Georgia.
The warning area also extends inland to include Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, and the state’s Gulf Coast is seeing tropical storm surges from Bonita Beach in southwest Florida to Indian Pass in the Panhandle. A tropical storm watch extends north to the South Santa River in South Carolina.
Jack Beven, a forecaster at the National Hurricane Center, said the storm has a “very large cyclonic envelope,” meaning that even if it makes landfall along the central Florida coastline, the effects will be felt as far north as Georgia.
NASA announced that due to the storm, next week’s launch of the long-awaited lunar rocket will be postponed by two days to November 16. The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket will send an empty crew capsule around the moon and on another dramatic flight test before astronauts climb aboard in a couple of years.
However, the storm had no effect on voting in Florida on Tuesday.
Officials in the Bahamas opened more than two dozen shelters across the archipelago on Tuesday as they closed schools and government facilities in Abaca, Bimini, Berry Islands and Grand Bahama.
Authorities warned that some airports and seaports would close as the storm approached and would not reopen until Thursday, and they urged people in slums to seek safe shelter.
Communities in Abaco are expected to take a direct hit from Nicole as they still try to recover from Dorian.
“We don’t have time to beg and ask people to move,” Russell said.
Some Florida counties offered residents sandbags. In Indian River County, which is north of West Palm Beach, shelters were set to open at 7 a.m. Wednesday, although no mandatory evacuation orders had been issued as of late Tuesday morning, spokesman Mason Kozak said.
Any evacuation will be purely voluntary, with residents “talking to themselves about whether they need to leave or not,” Kozak said.
A mandatory evacuation order in Palm Beach County affects 52,000 mobile home residents and 67,000 barrier island residents, officials said at an afternoon news conference. Shelters up and down the coast were opening at 7 a.m. Wednesday, officials said.
Schools will be closed in several Florida counties as the storm approaches. Some announced they would be closed until Friday, which was already a day off due to the Veterans Day holiday. Other districts said they would cancel classes Thursday. The University of Central Florida, one of the largest universities in the US with 70,000 students and 12,000 employees, was closed on Wednesday and Thursday.
Disney World outside Orlando planned to close Typhoon Lagoon water park and two miniature golf courses on Thursday.
In Seminole County, north of Orlando, Hurricane Ian caused unprecedented flooding, and officials are concerned that the incoming storm could cause another round of flooding and wind.
“The water on the ground has saturated the root structures of a lot of trees. Winds can knock down trees and they can down power lines,” Alan Harris, Seminole County’s emergency manager, said at a news conference Tuesday.
In South Carolina, forecasters warned that for several days, onshore winds from Nicole could pile up seawater in places like downtown Charleston. Thursday morning’s high tide was forecast to be higher than Hurricane Ian’s water level.
As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, the storm was about 150 miles (240 kilometers) east-northeast of the northwestern Bahamas and 325 miles (525 kilometers) east of West Palm Beach, Florida. It was moving west-southwest at 10 mph (17 kph).
Tropical storm force winds extend up to 380 miles (610 kilometers) from the center of the storm, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The last storm to hit Florida in November was Tropical Storm Eta, which hit Cedar Key on the state’s Gulf Coast on November 12, 2020.
Since records began in 1853, only two hurricanes have made landfall in Florida in November, said Maria Torres, spokeswoman for the Hurricane Center. The first was Hurricane Yankee in 1935, and the second was Hurricane Kate, which hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 2 storm in 1985.