Nicole strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane on Wednesday evening and was chugging toward a historic landfall with Florida, prompting schools, theme parks and governments across the state and here in Tampa Bay to close at a time of the year when residents typically are enjoying an early autumn chill and putting hurricane season behind them.
Nicole, with an enormous wind field that stretched outward up to 485 miles on Wednesday, is a rare late-season storm. It was expected to make landfall on Florida’s east coast late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning. If Nicole were to remain at hurricane strength when it comes ashore, it would be the second-latest hurricane to hit the nation in recorded history.
Tampa Bay was under a tropical storm warning Wednesday and winds could reach as high as 73 mph, according to forecasters. Tampa Bay could start feeling the worst effects before dawn, forecasters said, and high winds will last through much of Thursday, making power outages possible. Up to 4 inches of rain also is expected, though the dangerous storm surge that typically is a hurricane’s greatest threat likely will be minimal here, forecasters said.
Still, the threat of wind and water prompted officials to plan actions normally taken from June through October, rarely in November.
Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough county schools all announced Wednesday that they would close Thursday. Though no evacuations were ordered, Hillsborough and Pasco officials each opened a public shelter for people who wanted to evacuate. The University of South Florida said it was going largely remote. Busch Gardens announced it would close.
In other parts of Florida, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando both said they would close, a space mission was scrapped, Publix announced it would close some stores on the state’s east coast and even former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago complex was in an evacuation zone.
Airports across Florida announced they would close Thursday, including Palm Beach International Airport and Orlando International Airport. Tampa International Airport, however, said it would remain open.
Forecasters said Nicole’s winds were so wide-reaching that setting a track for it was essentially useless. The storm will swallow Florida, leaving little of the state untouched as it streaks over the peninsula and curls toward Georgia.
“At this point, I’m not even showing you the track forecast because it doesn’t matter,” Austen Flannery, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office, said during a Facebook Live on Wednesday. “Everybody is going to be seeing impacts from this system, certainly when it comes to the wind aspect of things across the area.”
As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nicole had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph. Hurricane-force winds may not reach the Tampa Bay area, but Mike Clay, a meteorologist at Spectrum Bay News 9, said weather models show gusts of up to 65 mph are possible anywhere in Central Florida. Clay said conditions should begin to improve in the Tampa Bay area on Thursday afternoon.
Though storm surge may not be as feared as in past storms, a storm surge warning was in effect for the coastal areas of Tampa Bay. Forecasters were predicting up to 3 feet of surge in an area stretching from southern Sarasota County to northern Pinellas. Parts of Pasco County could experience a storm surge of up to 6 feet.
“Thursday could bring a few feet of high water on to the coast and into Tampa Bay,” Clay said. “It shouldn’t be anything more than nuisance flooding for normal spots.”
At a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said significant power outages could occur across the state, but that 16,000 linemen were on standby to restore power, as were 600 National Guardsmen and seven search and rescue teams.
“It will affect huge parts of the state of Florida all day,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis had declared states of emergency in 34 counties, including Hillsborough and Pasco, on Monday in anticipation of Nicole. On Wednesday, he added 11 counties to the list, including Pinellas and Hernando.
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.
As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nicole was about 100 miles east of West Palm Beach. The storm was moving west at about 13 mph.
If Nicole still is a hurricane when it makes landfall in Florida, as forecasters expect, it will be the second-latest hurricane to hit the continental United States in recorded history. Hurricane Kate is the latest recorded storm; it hit the Florida Panhandle as a Category 2 on Nov. 22, 1985. Hurricane season ends on Nov. 30.
Nicole will weaken while moving across Florida and the southeastern United States, according to the Hurricane Center. It will likely become a post-tropical cyclone by Friday afternoon over the mid-Atlantic states, forecasters said.
Nicole made landfall on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas on Wednesday morning with wind speeds of about 70 mph before setting a course for Florida. Power outages and flooding were reported in the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, there were reports of major beach erosion and damage to coastal roads on Florida’s east coast by Wednesday afternoon.
In the Tampa Bay area, Pasco County commissioners on Wednesday declared a local state of emergency and announced plans to open the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter, 11611 Denton Ave. in Hudson, at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Hillsborough County’s shelter was opened at Erwin Technical College, 2010 E Hillsborough Ave. The shelter was accepting residents with pets. Residents were told to bring a sturdy carrier for each pet, proof of current rabies vaccination and license for dogs and cats, and pet supplies, including food, water, litter, cleaning supplies, medications, etc. The pet must arrive on a leash or in a carrier.
Information from The Associated Press and Spectrum Bay News 9 supplements this report.
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2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide
IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.
FORECAST: The ‘cone of uncertainty’ can be confusing. Here’s how to read it.
MODELS: How reliable are hurricane models? Hurricane Ian gave us some answers.
EVACUATIONS: Fewer evacuated to shelters during Hurricane Ian. How can Tampa Bay stay safe?
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A SHELTER: What to bring — and not bring — plus information on pets, keeping it civil and more.
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
PREPARING FOR A HURRICANE: Make a plan, listen to experts, and know there’s help available if you need it.
DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits
PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.
SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.
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Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change
PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.
PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.
PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?
INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.