DEKLE BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The first hurricane to hit Florida in more than a decade wiped away beachside buildings and toppled trees onto homes Friday before plowing inland on a path that could send it rolling up the densely populated East Coast with heavy rain, high winds and flooding.
Hermine quickly weakened to a tropical storm as it spun through Georgia and the Carolinas. But the National Hurricane Center predicted it would regain hurricane strength after emerging in the Atlantic Ocean. The system could then lash coastal areas as far north as Connecticut and Rhode Island through Labor Day.
“Anyone along the U.S. East Coast needs to be paying close attention this weekend,” said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center.
In Florida, Hermine’s main impact came in the form of power outages and damage from storm surges. A homeless man south of Gainesville died when a tree fell on him, Gov. Rick Scott said.
An estimated 325,000 people were without power statewide and more than 107,000 in neighboring Georgia, officials said.
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At 5 p.m., the storm was centered about 30 miles southwest of Charleston, South Carolina, and moving northeast at 20 mph, according to the hurricane center. Maximum sustained winds were 50 mph.
The system was forecast to strengthen back into a hurricane by Monday morning off the Maryland-Delaware coast before weakening again as it moves north. Tropical storm watches and warnings were posted up and down the coastline.
Back in Florida, a storm surge at Dekle Beach 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. in the Big Bend area, where Florida’s peninsula and panhandle meet.
Nancy Geohagen walked around collecting photos and other items for her neighbors after the storm scattered them.
“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 was now 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, 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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
The Florida governor declared an emergency in 51 counties and said about 6,000 National Guardsmen stood ready to mobilize for the storm’s aftermath. The governors of Georgia and North Carolina also declared emergencies.