By FREIDA FRISARO
MIAMI (AP) — Shortly after Hurricane Nicole made landfall early Thursday along the east coast of Florida, it was downgraded to a tropical storm but it was still battering a large area of the storm-weary state with strong winds, damaging storm surge and heavy rain.
The rare November hurricane prompted officials to shut down airports and theme parks and order evacuations in areas that included former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.
Authorities warned that Nicole’s storm surge could further erode many beaches hit by Hurricane Ian in September. The sprawling storm is forecast to head into Georgia and the Carolinas later Thursday and Friday, dumping heavy rain across the region.
Nicole made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane before its maximum sustained winds dropped to 60 mph (100 kph) early Thursday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said. The storm was centered about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southeast of Orlando. It was moving west-northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).
Tropical storm force winds extended as far as 450 miles (720 kilometers) from the center in some directions. Nicole was expected to move across central Florida on Thursday morning, possibly emerge over the far northeastern Gulf of Mexico in the afternoon, and then move across the Florida Panhandle and Georgia.
A few tornadoes were possible through early Thursday across east-central to northeast Florida, the forecasters said. Flash and urban flooding will be possible, along with renewed river rises on the St. Johns River, across the Florida Peninsula on Thursday. Heavy rainfall will spread northward across portions of the southeast, eastern Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, and New England through Saturday.
Large swells generated by Nicole will affect the northwestern Bahamas, the east coast of Florida, and much of the southeastern United States coast over the next few days. The storm was expected to weaken into a tropical depression over Georgia on Thursday night or early Friday.
Nicole became a hurricane Wednesday evening as it slammed into Grand Bahama Island, having made landfall just hours earlier on Great Abaco island as a tropical storm. It was the first storm to hit the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the archipelago in 2019.
For storm-weary Floridians, it is only the third November hurricane to hit their shores since recordkeeping began in 1853. The previous ones were the 1935 Yankee Hurricane and Hurricane Kate in 1985.
Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s club and home, was in one of the 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 Wednesday afternoon.
There is no penalty for ignoring an evacuation order, but rescue crews will not respond if it puts their members at risk.
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 likely would not open as scheduled Thursday.
At a news conference Wednesday in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that winds were the biggest concern 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.
Warnings and watches were issued for many parts of Florida, including the southwestern Gulf coastline that was devastated by Hurricane Ian, which struck as a Category 4 storm. The storm destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state — damage that many are still dealing with. Ian brought storm surge of up to 13 feet (4 meters), causing widespread destruction.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.