JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A state of emergency was declared Wednesday for 51 counties in North and Central Florida as Tropical Storm Hermine churned in the Gulf of Mexico. The system was upgraded to Hurricane Hermine just before 3 p.m. Thursday.
The system is expected to make landfall somewhere around the Big Bend about midnight.
Gov. Rick Scott, who issued the emergency declaration, announced Thursday evening that all state offices in the 37 counties will be closed Friday.
Those counties are Alachua, Baker, Bay, Bradford, Calhoun, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Dixie, Duval, Flagler, Franklin, Gadsden, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jackson, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Levy, Liberty, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Pasco, Pinellas, Putnam, St. Johns, Suwannee, Taylor, Union, Wakulla and Walton.
Also, the Florida Supreme Court and the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee will be closed, as will many local courts across North Florida, according to the Supreme Court website.
"Our employees work very hard and their safety is of the upmost importance," Scott said. "Our State Emergency Operations Center and State Emergency Response Team are in constant communication with local communities and stand ready to respond to any impacts."
Scott said Wednesday that 6,000 members of the Florida National Guard are ready to be deployed as the storm system is on track to hit the state late Thursday or early Friday.
"For the most part, we are on standby to just assist the civil authorities, whether that be peacekeeping, sandbag filling, direction. In times of crisis, there's usually a need for people to be out on the streets and helping people out. And that includes rescue support, whether that be flooding or digging people out of houses," said National Guard Sgt. Kenneth Edel. "We are always in a ready-state. Our equipment and supplies are ready. And all we need is the phone call."
Scott warned that the system will bring the potential of lightning, tornadoes, flooding and standing water that could heighten the risk of the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has been found across the state.
"We're going to see a lot of rain, we're going to see five to 10 inches of rain, potentially 15 inches of rain," Scott said after receiving a storm update at the state Emergency Operations Center.
Scott also warned Floridians to take precautions before, during and after the storm, which could be the first hurricane to hit the state in more than a decade.
"We're going to see downed power lines," Scott said.
Scott's announcement came after the National Hurricane Center on Tuesday issued a hurricane watch for parts of the state's Gulf Coast, with people from northern Florida through the Carolinas advised to monitor the system.
"By declaring a state of emergency in advance of this storm, we are ensuring that state, regional and local agencies can work together to meet the needs of our communities," Scott said. "We have a great risk management team right here in Jacksonville. The mayor's team is ready. The sheriff's team is ready. Everybody is getting prepared."
Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said the storm is expected to impact a "large part of north-central Florida."
A Category 1 hurricane has average wind speeds between 74 and 95 mph.
The National Hurricane Center said the meandering storm is expected to strengthen and accelerate north-northeastward or northeastward by Wednesday night.
"We are citizen soldiers. That's the best part about being in the National Guard. We are part of your community. We live in your community, so we have a stake in this too. We want to make sure everyone is safe and sound," Edel said.
The areas under the hurricane watch are between the Anclote River, near Tarpon Springs, to Indian Pass, south of Port St. Joe in Gulf County. A tropical-storm warning also remained in place from Indian Pass west to the Walton County-Bay County line.