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Hurricane Hermine makes landfall south of Tallahassee

Hurricane Hermine made landfall south of Tallahassee early today as a Category 1 storm, slamming the state's Big Bend region with 80 mph winds and ending a hurricane-free streak of nearly 11 years.

The storm's outer bands caused trouble along the Gulf Coast on Thursday. Floodwaters poured over seawalls and overwhelmed roads throughout the Tampa Bay region as squalls brought bouts of rain and knocked out power to thousands of utility customers.

While the bay area isn't expected to feel hurricane-force effects today, anticipated tropical storm conditions and continued flooding prompted schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties to close again. Elsewhere, Gov. Rick Scott ordered mandatory evacuations of parts of five counties in North Florida.

"This is life-threatening," Scott said.

Coming today

Early today, the storm was inland near St. Marks, moving north-northeast at 14 mph. The storm was expected to weaken as it moves farther inland across Florida and into southeastern Georgia later today.

"It's a good thing for us to see this and watch this and remember what it's like," said 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Bobby Deskins. "Not only have the people who've lived here not seen it in 11 years, but there are thousands of people who have moved here since who have never had to deal with that."

In evacuating parts of Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties, the governor stressed preparedness. He warned of rising waters and downed power lines.

"You should assume you are going to lose power and hope that you don't," Scott said.

By 8 p.m. Thursday, Hermine's effects began to reach Tallahassee, the largest population center in its path. Winds blew at 20 mph under gray skies.

Downtown was deserted after Scott sent state workers home to take shelter. To the south, coastal communities were already flooding. In Taylor and Dixie counties, storm surges could reach as high as 12 feet, Scott said in a briefing.

"The good news is the majority of these are fairly small towns," said Bryan Koon, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management. But that could make it harder to rescue people who ignored the evacuation order, he said.

Tampa Bay won't see too large of an impact today, National Weather Service meteorologist Jennifer Hubbard said.

"It's not going to be much different from what we've seen with other tropical storms," she said.

The heaviest rain will be seen along the coast, Deskins said, with a coastal flood advisory in effect for all bay-area counties. He said overall rain totals along the coast could surpass the predicted 8 to 14 inches.

Meteorologists will keep a close eye on storm surge, especially around 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. today, when expected high winds will pair with high tide to bring more water ashore.

"Wind is going to be one of the biggest issues," Deskins said.

Thursday's toll

Flooding plagued Tampa Bay on Thursday, despite lighter-than-anticipated rains. County officials closed parks and offices. Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Manatee and Hillsborough public schools were closed.

The Florida Highway Patrol closed the Sunshine Skyway bridge when wind gusts intensified. Several flights to and from North Florida were canceled at Tampa International Airport.

For residents of Ironbark Drive in Port Richey, finding their driveways under water came as no surprise.

Jennifer Leatham, 34, had dealt with water in her home during Tropical Storm Debby in 2012, forcing her to tear down walls and rebuild. An overflowing retention pond across the street has been a sore spot for years, she said. Some neighbors, she said, decided to abandon their homes this week for fear of what Hermine would do.

Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano visited her street Thursday, with sandbags and a solution in tow. He wants a pump and pipe system to move water to another pond nearby. And he wanted it installed by today.

"We need to act right now," he said.

Flooding only worsened on the beaches. Just a sliver of sand was left of Indian Rocks Beach around high tide as waves rolled in closer and closer to the dunes.

"It's usually about 40 to 50 feet out," said 52-year-old Jeff Peterson of Largo, while surveying the coast line.

On Madeira Beach, Leann Rankovich, 53, watched the sand shrink before her eyes.

"When I first came out an hour ago there was still maybe 10 foot of beach, but, no, it's up to the walkway now," she said.

By Thursday afternoon, the Intracoastal Waterway had risen above the seawall in Redington Shores, spilling onto parking lots along Gulf Boulevard.

Manholes continued to overflow sewage and rainwater in Largo. One shallow hole off Donegan Road discharged a steady flow all day, as bits of toilet paper built up in a drainage ditch.

The city's wastewater treatment plant was in overdrive near the end of the day. County workers were forced to divert water into Cross Bayou that hadn't yet gone through de-chlorination.

The plant also released partly treated sewage, including some solid waste, into the bayou overnight after a pump failed, said Irvin Kety, environmental services director.

"When you get 11 inches of rain, there's going to be a lot of water that's hard to control," he said.

Heavy-duty emergency vehicles left a wake on flooded streets such as Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa, which closed in both directions. Cars on Coffee Pot Boulevard in St. Petersburg sent waves into residents' yards. Flooding also closed Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Bayou Boulevard S in St. Petersburg. Fire Rescue had to help two women — and their dogs — escape from their Lake Maggiore home that was surrounded by up to 5 feet of standing water.

Keeping tabs on Hermine

The storm caught the eye of meteorologists last week, but it took a week and a half to develop into an organized system. It was dubbed Tropical Storm Hermine on Wednesday after National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hurricane Hunters flew into the system to measure its strength.

The National Weather Service declared the approaching storm a hurricane at 3 p.m. Thursday.

The last hurricane to hit the state was Category 3 Wilma, which struck southwest Florida in October 2005 and caused widespread flooding and millions in property damage. Five people died in Florida and 17 more in Haiti, Mexico and Jamaica .

The storm should begin its Florida exit around midday today, forecasters said.

Times staff writers Samantha Putterman, Tony Marrero, Tracey McManus, Kathryn Varn, Jack Suntrup, Kristen M. Clark, Jeremy Wallace and Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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