DEKLE BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Hermine tore across northern Florida on Friday as the first hurricane to hit the state in more than a decade, killing one person, raising a storm surge that destroyed beachside buildings and toppling trees into homes.
As the system pushed into Georgia, it knocked down power lines in both states. Hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity.
Hermine was expected to move into the Carolinas and roll up the East Coast, bringing the potential for drenching rain and devastating flooding through the Labor Day weekend. By Friday afternoon, it had weakened to a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. The National Hurricane Center issued tropical storm watches and warnings as far north as the Connecticut-Rhode Island border.
“Anyone along the U.S. East Coast needs to be paying close attention this weekend,” center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
Although damage was still being assessed, Gov. Rick Scott said he knew of no other “major issues” besides the power outages and damaged roads. It was unclear whether he had received word of damage to remote and sparsely populated beach areas just south of the Big Bend, where the peninsula meets the Panhandle.
A homeless man in Marion County, south of Gainesville, was killed when he was hit by a tree, Scott said at a news conference.
Hurricane Hermine strikes Florida coast
At Dekle Beach, a storm surge damaged numerous homes and destroyed storage buildings and a 100-yard fishing pier. The area is about 60 miles southeast of St. Marks, where Hermine made landfall at 1:30 a.m.
Nancy Geohagen walked around collecting photos and other items for her neighbors that had been thrown from storage.
“I know who this baseball bat belongs to,” she said plucking it from a pile of debris.
An unnamed spring storm that hit the beach in 1993 killed 10 people who refused to evacuate. This time, only three residents stayed behind. All escaped injury.
In nearby Steinhatchee, a storm surge crashed into Bobbi Pattison’s home. She wore galoshes and was covered in black muck as she stood in her living room amid overturned furniture and an acrid smell. Tiny crabs darted around her floor.
“I had a hurricane cocktail party last night and God got even with me,” she said with a chuckle. Where her bar once stood now was only wet sand and rubble. Pattison and two neighbors managed to set upright a large wooden statue of a sea captain she had carved from wood that washed ashore in the 1993 storm.
In Keaton Beach, about two dozen people waited on a road just after sunrise Friday, trying to get to their homes. Police blocked the road because of flooding.
Dustin Beach, 31, had rushed there from a hospital in Tallahassee where his wife had given birth Thursday night to a girl to see if his home still stood.
“When my wife got up this morning, she said, ‘Go home and check on the house. I need to know where we’re going after we leave the hospital,'” Beach said.
Cindy Simpson was waiting near her car, hoping her beach home and boats survived. “It’s a home on stilts so I put everything upstairs. We have two boats in the boat house, and I hope they’re still there,” she said.
High winds knocked trees onto several houses in Tallahassee, injuring people inside.
Fire-rescue spokesman Mike Bellamy said an unknown number of people were taken to hospitals with injuries that were not thought to be life-threatening. His agency responded to more than 300 calls overnight.
The governor estimated that 325,000 people statewide had no power.
It was sometime after midnight when Alan Autry, 48, started hearing the large pines that line his Tallahassee neighborhood start to crack and fall to the ground.
Then he heard one come down on the top floor of his house. The tree didn’t initially crash through the roof, and Autry and his wife went to a neighbor’s house. Sometime before dawn, the corner of his house collapsed from the weight of the tree.
“We’ve been married 13 years and this is our fifth hurricane,” said Autry who moved from central Florida six years ago. “By far, this is the worst damage we’ve ever had.”
The Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay was closed Friday morning because of high winds, but Tampa and St. Petersburg escaped major damage. Up to 17 inches of rain fell in the area over the last two days.
In Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee, at least seven homes were damaged by falling trees, said Scott Nelson, the county’s emergency manager.
At 2 p.m., the storm was centered about 80 miles southwest of Charleston, South Carolina, and was moving northeast at 18 mph, according to the hurricane center.
As Hermine surged into southern Georgia, 84-year-old Melvin Gatlin Sr. awoke before dawn to the sound of a thundering crack that shook his whole house.
The storm’s winds had uprooted a pine tree in Gatlin’s backyard and sent it crashing onto his home of more than 40 years. The trunk crushed a storage shed where Gatlin kept his deep freezer, lawn mower and other tools and appliances. It also made a tear in the roof.
“I thought somebody had shot me, the way it sounded,” Gatlin said a few hours later in his living room, where a cooking pot on the floor caught water dripping from the ceiling in a long, thin line.
By late Friday morning, more than 107,000 customers were left without power across Georgia, utility companies reported.
The last hurricane to strike Florida was Wilma, a powerful Category 3 storm that arrived on Oct. 24, 2005. It swept across the Everglades and struck heavily populated south Florida, causing five deaths in the state and an estimated $23 billion in damage.
Scott declared an emergency in 51 counties. He said 6,000 National Guardsmen were poised to mobilize for the storm’s aftermath. The governors of Georgia and North Carolina also declared states of emergency.