Nicole strengthens into tropical storm en route to Bahamas

Nicole strengthened into a tropical storm as it churned towards the northwestern Bahamas and Florida’s Atlantic coastline, forecasters have said.

Storm Nicole, packing maximum sustained winds of 80km per hour (50 miles per hour), was located about 615km (385 miles) northwest of the Bahamas as it moved west towards Florida, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory on Tuesday morning.

With the storm expected to strengthen throughout the day as it travelled at 12.87km/h (eight miles per hour) towards Florida, some 18 million people along the state’s Atlantic coast were under watches and warnings.

Many areas are still reeling from damage caused by Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida’s southwestern Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm in late September, before dumping heavy amounts of rain across much of the central part of the state.

Forecasters said heavy rain could fall on areas still recovering from Ian’s flooding.

On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 34 counties along his state’s east coast, saying it was “in an abundance of caution” so that the area’s residents and businesses can prepare.

“While this storm does not, at this time, appear that it will become much stronger, I urge all Floridians to be prepared and to listen to announcements from local emergency management officials,” DeSantis said in a statement.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for the Abacos, Berry Islands, Bimini and Grand Bahama Island, the Miami-based NHC said in an advisory. Other areas of the Bahamas, including Andros Island, New Province and Eleuthera remained under a tropical storm warning.

Eliane Hall, who works at a hotel in Great Abaco Island, said there were long lines at gas stations and grocery stores as people prepared for the storm’s arrival.

“We just boarded it up,” she said of the hotel, adding that the impact of Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that struck in 2019, was still fresh in many people’s minds. “We’re still affected.”

Warning areas

Authorities said they were especially concerned about those now living in about 100 motorhomes in Grand Bahama after Hurricane Dorian destroyed their homes, and about the migrant community in Great Abaco’s March Harbor that Russell said has grown from 50 acres (20 hectares) to 200 acres (81 hectares) since Dorian.

The previous community of Haitian migrants was among the hardest hit by the 2019 storm given the large number of flimsy structures in which many lived.

The hurricane centre said the storm’s track shifted slightly north overnight, but the exact path remains uncertain as it approaches Florida, where it is expected to make landfall as a Category 1 hurricane late on Wednesday or early Thursday.

On Tuesday morning, hurricane warnings were issued for a large portion of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, from Boca Raton to north of Daytona Beach. Tropical storm warnings are in place for other parts of the Florida coast, all the way to Altamaha Sound, Georgia.

The warning area also stretches inland, covering Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, with tropical storm watches in effect on the state’s Gulf Coast — from Bonita Beach in southwest Florida to the Ochlockonee River in the Panhandle.

Officials in the Bahamas opened more than two dozen shelters across the archipelago on Tuesday as they closed schools and government offices in Abaco, Bimini, the Berry Islands and Grand Bahama.

Authorities warned that airports and seaports will close as the storm nears and not reopen until Thursday, and they urged people in shantytowns to seek secure shelter.

Communities in Abaco are expected to receive a direct hit from Nicole as they still struggle to recover from Dorian.

“We don’t have time to beg and plead for persons to move,” said Captain Stephen Russell, emergency management authority director.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. The last storm to hit Florida in November was Tropical Storm Eta, which made landfall in Cedar Key, on the state’s Gulf Coast, on November 12, 2020.

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