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Nicole approaches hurricane strength as it lashes the Bahamas, with a late-night Florida landfall expected


By Jason Hanna and Aya Elamroussi, CNN

Tropical Storm Nicole is whipping the northwestern Bahamas and could become a Category 1 hurricane before hitting Florida’s east coast by early Thursday, forecasters say, poised to deliver heavy rain, damaging winds and possibly tornadoes to some places still recovering from Hurricane Ian.

Nicole’s center, with sustained 70-mph winds just 4 mph shy of a hurricane, was 25 miles off the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island around 10 a.m. ET. It is expected to pass near or over the northwestern Bahamas on its way to Florida, where it is set to make landfall perhaps shortly after midnight near Port St. Lucie, the US National Hurricane Center said.

Nicole would be the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States in November in nearly 40 years. Nearly 4 million people along Florida’s east coast are under hurricane warnings as Nicole approached.

Parts of the eastern Florida coastline already were experiencing tropical storm conditions Wednesday morning, owing to how big Nicole is. Tropical storm-force winds (39 to 73 mph) extended outward up to 460 miles, the hurricane center said. The enormous wind field — wider than that of stronger Ian on its Florida approach — means nearly the whole state will feel winds of 39 mph or greater from Nicole.

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After Florida landfall, Nicole is expected to weaken while moving across the southeastern US Thursday and Friday. Yet it will continue to threaten flooding and damage to Florida, which is still reeling since Ian struck in September along the west coast, then raked damage across the state, killing at least 120 people there and leveling communities.

Besides damaging winds, Nicole is forecast to deliver:

• Heavy rain: Around 3 to 8 inches are possible from the northwestern Bahamas to the eastern, central and northern portions of Florida. About 2 to 6 inches are expected from parts of the US southeast to the southern and central Appalachians and western mid-Atlantic through Friday, the hurricane center says.

• Storm surge: Coastal water levels could rise by as much as 6 feet above normal tide in the northwestern Bahamas, and up to 5 feet from Florida’s North Palm Beach to Georgia’s Altamaha Sound. Up to 4 feet of surge is possible to the south and north of that range, including through parts of South Carolina’s coast.

• Tornadoes: Some twisters are possible Wednesday evening through Thursday across eastern Florida, southeastern Georgia and southern South Carolina, the hurricane center said.

Hurricane hunter aircraft were flying Wednesday morning into the system to record the winds.

“Nicole is forecast to become a hurricane near the northwestern Bahamas and remain a hurricane when it reaches the east coast of Florida” by early Thursday, the hurricane center said.

Evacuations ordered in some Florida counties

The ominous forecast has led to evacuations orders in some Florida counties still trying to recover from Ian.

Ahead of Nicole, more than a dozen school districts have closed schools Wednesday or will dismiss students early, with some closures running through week’s end, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Orlando International Airport will suspend operations starting Wednesday afternoon. Miami International Airport said Tuesday it would remain open, adding the storm may affect flights Wednesday.

In Volusia County, home to Daytona Beach, the storm poses a direct threat to life and property, county manager George Recktenwald said. Those in flood-prone areas, RV parks and other places are ordered to evacuate starting at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

“Our infrastructure, especially along the coastline, is extremely vulnerable because of Hurricane Ian’s impacts,” Recktenwald noted on the county’s website. “We expect further erosion along the beach, along with flooding in areas that were previously flooded by Ian. Residents need to take this storm seriously.”

In Palm Beach County, an evacuation mandate began at 7 a.m. for zones including barrier islands and low-lying areas, officials said.

Some in Brevard County also were advised to evacuate starting at 7 a.m. The recommendation applies to barrier islands, including areas from Kennedy Space Center south beaches and Merritt Island, plus those in other flood-prone areas, in mobile and manufactured homes, and who are dependent on electricity, the county said.

“A dangerous storm surge from #Nicole is expected along much of the E coast of FL, portions of coastal GA, & FL Big Bend,” the National Hurricane Center’s Storm Surge Unit said on Twitter. “The storm surge will be accompanied by large & damaging waves along the Atlantic coast. Residents should listen to advice from local officials.”

Nicole expected to move into southern Georgia

After hitting eastern Florida, Nicole’s center — by then a tropical storm — is “expected to move across central and northern Florida into southern Georgia Thursday and Thursday night,” and may move across the Carolinas Friday, the hurricane center said.

A hurricane warning in Florida is in effect from Boca Raton to the Flagler-Volusia County line.

Tropical storm conditions are expected to spread Wednesday through Georgia and South Carolina. A tropical storm warning is in effect for Florida’s west coast north of Bonita Beach to Indian Pass, and from eastern Florida’s Flagler/Volusia County line to South Carolina’s South Santee River.

If Nicole becomes a hurricane, it would be the third in the Atlantic Ocean so far this November. That would tie 2001 for the most Atlantic hurricanes in November on record.

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CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller and CNN’s Chris Boyette, Raja Razek and Amanda Musa contributed to this report.

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