By FREIDA FRISARO
MIAMI (AP) — A Florida-bound storm strengthened into Hurricane Nicole on Wednesday evening as it pounded the Bahamas, and U.S. officials ordered evacuations that included former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.
It’s a rare November hurricane for storm-weary Florida, where only two such hurricanes have made landfall since recordkeeping began in 1853 — the 1935 Yankee Hurricane and Hurricane Kate in 1985.
Nicole was expected to reach Florida late Wednesday or early Thursday with a storm surge that could further erode many beaches hit by Hurricane Ian in September before heading into Georgia and the Carolinas later Thursday and Friday. It was expected to dump heavy rain across the region.
Nicole’s center was about 75 miles (125 kilometers) east-northeast of West Palm Beach, Florida, late Wednesday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph) and was moving west-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph).
The sprawling storm became a hurricane as it slammed into Grand Bahama, having made landfall just hours earlier on Great Abaco island as a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph.
Nicole is the first storm to hit the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the archipelago in 2019.
In the Bahamas, officials said that more than 860 people were in more than two dozen shelters. Extensive flooding, downed trees and power and water outages were reported in the archipelago’s northwest region.
Authorities were especially concerned about a large Haitian community in Great Abaco that was destroyed by Dorian and has since grown from 50 acres (20 hectares) to 200 acres (80 hectares).
“Do not put yourselves in harm’s way,” said Zhivago Dames, assistant commissioner of police information as he urged everyone to stay indoors. “Our first responders are out there. However, they will not put their lives in danger.”
In Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that storm surge from Tropical Storm Nicole had already breached the sea wall along Indian River Drive, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. The Martin County Sheriff’s office also said seawater had breached part of a road on Hutchinson Island.
Residents in several Florida counties — Flagler, Palm Beach, Martin and Volusia — were ordered to evacuate such barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes. Volusia, home to Daytona Beach, imposed a curfew and warned that intercoastal bridges used by evacuees would close when winds reach 39 mph.
Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club and home, is in one of those evacuation zones, built about a quarter-mile inland from the ocean. The main buildings sit on a small rise that is about 15 feet (4.6 meters) above sea level and the property has survived numerous stronger hurricanes since it was built nearly a century ago. The resort’s security office hung up Wednesday when an Associated Press reporter asked whether the club was being evacuated and there was no sign of evacuation by early afternoon.
There is no penalty for ignoring an evacuation order, but rescue crews will not respond if it puts their members at risk.
In Palm Beach County, some 400 people checked into seven evacuation centers including Hidir Dontar, a software engineer carrying a backpack and plastic bag with his belongings. He said he didn’t want to stay in his apartment because the landlord wasn’t putting shutters over the windows, something that didn’t feel safe having lived through “one bad one,” 2004’s Hurricane Frances.
“I didn’t want to be in the middle of the storm, have something go wrong and wonder, ‘What do I do now?’” Dontar said.
Meanwhile, officials in Daytona Beach Shores deemed unsafe at least a half dozen, multi-story, coastal residential buildings already damaged by Hurricane Ian and now threatened by Nicole. At some locations, authorities went door-to-door telling people to grab their possessions and leave.
Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort announced they were closing early on Wednesday and likely would not reopen as scheduled on Thursday.
Palm Beach International Airport closed Wednesday morning, and Daytona Beach International Airport said it would cease operations. Orlando International Airport, the seventh busiest in the U.S., also closed. Further south, officials said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport were experiencing some flight delays and cancellations but both planned to remain open.
At a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said winds were the biggest concern and and significant power outages could occur, but that 16,000 linemen were on standby to restore power, as well as 600 guardsmen and seven search and rescue teams.
“It will affect huge parts of the state of Florida all day,” DeSantis said of the storm’s expected landing.
Almost two dozen school districts were closing schools for the storm and 15 shelters had opened along Florida’s east coast, the governor said.
Forty-five of Florida’s 67 counties were under a state of emergency declaration.
Florida Division of Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie said Floridians should expect possible tornadoes, rip currents and flash flooding.
Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Brave Davis, who is at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, drew attention to the link between storms and climate change.
“There have always been storms, but as the planet warms from carbon emissions, storms are growing in intensity and frequency,” he said. “For those in Grand Bahama and Abaco, I know it is especially difficult for you to face another storm,”
Tropical storm force winds extended as far as 485 miles (780 kilometers) from the center in some directions.
New warnings and watches were issued for many parts of Florida, including the southwestern Gulf coastline which was devastated by Hurricane Ian, which struck as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28. The storm destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state. — damage that many are still dealing with.
In Florida, the “combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline,” the hurricane center said.
Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said the storm will affect a large part of the state.
“Because the system is so large, really almost the entire east coast of Florida except the extreme southeastern part and the Keys is going to receive tropical storm force winds,” he said.
The storm is then expected to move across central and northern Florida into southern Georgia on Thursday, forecasters said. It was then forecast to move across the Carolinas on Friday.
“We are going to be concerned with rainfall as we get later into the week across portions of the southeastern United States and southern Appalachians, where there could be some flooding, flash flooding with that rainfall,” Brown said.
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.
At the beach just north of Mar-a-Lago as winds gusts neared 40 mph Wednesday afternoon, numerous people were taking videos of the churning ocean.
Denny DeHaven, who works for a Social Security advocacy group, said he lives inland so he’s not too concerned.
“It’s only going to be a Category 1 – the thing I mostly worry about is a power outage,” he said. “The people I worry about are those who live around here after seeing what happened in Fort Myers.” Hurricane Ian brought storm surge of up to 13 feet in late September, causing widespread destruction.
In a video posted on Twitter, Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said the surge had already arrived and dozens of seaside buildings declared structurally unsafe. A mandatory evacuation was issued for the beach side, and a curfew was scheduled for 7 p.m.
“We’re looking for a really rough night here,” Chitwood said.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press reporters Zeke Miller in Washington, D.C., and Terry Spencer in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.