CEDAR KEY, Fla. – Tornadoes hit in Keaton Beach near Steinhatchee, Florida Thursday night as Hurricane Hermine approached the Gulf Coast, Taylor County deputies confirmed to News4Jax.
Deputies said there were no injuries reported.
Evacuations have been ordered for several Gulf Coast communities and state parks across North and Central Florida as the Sunshine State braces for the first hit from a hurricane in more than a decade.
"This is life-threatening. We have a hurricane," Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday afternoon after Tropical Storm Hermine was upgraded to Hurricane Hermine. "You can rebuild a home. You can rebuild property. You cannot rebuild a life."
Scott said people need to be prepared for power outages, flood-causing rains, tornadoes and lightning.
"We're going to hope for the best, and we're going to prepare for the worst," he said.
The governor visited Wakulla County, south of Tallahassee, and said it is already experiencing high water levels. The potential storm surge could be up to 12 feet in Taylor and Dixie counties.
Scott has declared a state of emergency for 51 North and Central Florida counties in preparation for Hurricane Hermine, which forecasters predict will make landfall somewhere in the Big Bend or Nature Coast late Thursday or early Friday.
The National Hurricane Center reported Thursday afternoon that Hermine, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, was heading for the Gulf Coast in North Florida.
"Additional strengthening is anticipated, and Hermine is expected to be a hurricane by the time landfall occurs," the center reported at 11 a.m.
A hurricane warning was in effect from the Suwannee River to Mexico Beach, with hurricane watches in place from the Anclote River near Tarpon Springs to the Suwannee River and from Mexico Beach to the Walton-Bay County line.
Tropical-storm warnings were in place from Englewood to the Suwannee River, from west of Mexico Beach to the Walton-Bay line and from the Flagler-Volusia County Line on the Atlantic Coast to parts of North Carolina.
Residents have been ordered out of portions of Franklin, Wakulla, Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties.
Voluntary evacuation orders were issued in Walton, Jefferson and Gulf counties.
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said people ordered out of their homes or voluntarily seeking shelter "just need to get away from where the storm surge is."
Koon also expressed confidence that people will take warnings about the storm seriously, despite the state not getting directly hit by a hurricane since 2005.
"We have done a good deal of messaging over the last few days and we've seen a lot of cooperation from our broadcast partners, from the print media," Koon said. "So I'm confident at this point that everybody who is going to be impacted by the storm is at least aware of it and understands the things they need to be safe."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a representative at the state's emergency operations center, and Koon said the state will determine the amount of federal relief it will request after the disaster is assessed.
The state has 6,000 Florida National Guard members ready to deploy and has prepared other relief efforts for after the storm, Scott said.
Meanwhile, Scott ordered state offices to close at noon Thursday in 51 counties. No decision was made on opening the offices Friday.
The counties in Scott's order are: Alachua, Baker, Bay, Bradford, Brevard, Calhoun, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Lake, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Okaloosa, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Santa Rosa, Sarasota, Seminole, St. Johns, Sumter, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Volusia, Wakulla, Walton and Washington.
Also in Tallahassee, Florida State University and Florida A&M University canceled classes for Thursday and Friday. In addition, the Florida Supreme Court and the 1st District Court of Appeal closed at noon Thursday and will remain closed Friday.
Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, has begun preparing for Hurricane Hermine to hit landfall. All aircrafts, including F-22 Raptors and T-38 Talons, are being transported and housed in various base hangars for protection.
Cedar Key prepares for severe weather
In Cedar Key, residents and authorities have been busy preparing for the severe weather, including gathering supplies and boarding up homes and businesses.
Residents said they're not panicking, but many are concerned and evacuating.
"We are going to pack the camper up and head for higher ground," Robyn Trautman told News4Jax.
As of Wednesday, waves were already pounding Cedar Key's seawalls and some of the small streets had already experienced flooding.
Cedar Key Police Chief Virgil Sandlin advised people to avoid the area over the next few days.
"Unless you have to be out here, just stay home," he said. "It's just going to get worse."
He said only residents would be allowed on the island and police had already started closing roads Wednesday afternoon, as water was already rising several feet above normal levels.
"If you are not a resident or working in town, we are going to turn you around and send you back off the island," he said.
People have also been busy fueling up at the town's only gas station and buying ice and water at the island's only grocery store.
Gladys Poole, a cashier at the Market at Cedar Key, said they're trying to stay open as long as they can so people can stock up what they need.
"Get plenty of batteries, flashlights, candles. Like I said, they need to prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Poole said.
The Low-Key Hideaway Motel is a staple on the 700 person island. But over the next few days, it'll be empty.
"We just got to prepare and just, you know, can't fight Mother Nature. That's for sure," said owner Mo Dragonetti. "So we decided, we put the plywood here and the silicone down there (to) keep the water from getting in."
In June, Tropical Storm Colin pounded the fishing village's seawalls but did little damage. But in 1985, Hurricane Elena wiped out dozens of restaurants, stores and homes.
"Everything was annihilated. It took a lot of years for us to rebuild, but we did. That's what we do," said Carolyn Garback, a lifelong resident of Cedar Key. "We are resilient."
Residents said they just hope the tropical threat doesn't cause much damage, especially since Cedar Key is a tourist town and a lot of visitors are expected for Labor Day weekend.