Hurricane Hermine batters Florida and raises fear of spread of Zika virus
Hurricane Hermine tore a path of destruction across Florida on Friday, knocking out power for 253,000 customers, flooding low-lying areas and raising concerns about the spread of the Zika virus from pools of standing water left behind.
The first hurricane to make landfall in Florida in more than a decade, Hermine came ashore early on Friday near St. Marks, Florida, 20 miles (30 km) south of the state capital of Tallahassee, packing winds of 80 mph (130 kph) and churning up a devastating storm surge in coastal areas.
It was set to snarl US Labor Day holiday travel after battering Florida’s US$89 billion tourism industry.
Georgia was spared the havoc it had expected when it placed 56 counties under a state of emergency, but 85,000 homes and businesses lost power from downed trees and power lines.
“We’re having a bit of a sigh of relief,” said Jim Butterworth, director of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency.
Though sustained winds had weakened to 50 mph (80 kph), the tempest headed northeast toward the Atlantic seaboard on a path where tens of millions of Americans live, causing storm watches and warnings stretching to Rhode Island, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
It could strengthen again over water and possibly bring up to 15 inches (38 cm) of rain to the southeastern and mid-Atlantic states over the next 48 hours, with heavy rainfall possibly hitting coastal Delaware and New Jersey starting on Saturday night, the Center said.
“There is the possibility of life-threatening inundation during the next 48 hours at most coastal locations between the North Carolina/Virginia border and Bridgeport, Connecticut,” the center said.
New Jersey, still mindful of the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, was on high alert as emergency officials advised people to prepare for flooding, high winds and a surge of seawater.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Friday activated his state’s emergency operations centre and advised emergency officials to stockpile resources, including sandbags and generators.
In Florida, concerns over the standing water in which mosquitoes breed intensified as the state battles an outbreak of the Zika virus.
“It is incredibly important that everyone does their part to combat the Zika virus by dumping standing water, no matter how small,” Florida Governor Rick Scott told a news conference, also warning people to look out for downed power lines and avoid driving in pools of standing water.
There have been 47 cases of Zika in people believed to have contracted the virus through local mosquitoes, according to the Florida Department of Health. Active transmission is thought to be occurring only in two small areas around Miami.
As the sun rose on Friday morning on Hudson Beach, just north of Tampa, cars sat askew in the middle of flooded roads. Palm fronds, tree branches and garbage cans were scattered about.
Overnight, Pasco County crews rescued more than a dozen people and brought them to shelters after their homes were flooded.
Richard Jewett, 68, was rescued from his home in New Port Richey, just north of Tampa, around 1:30 a.m. EDT (0530 GMT) on Friday as emergency workers carried out a mandatory evacuation.
“The canal started creeping up toward the house and even though it wasn’t high tide it looked like it was coming inside,” he said.
In Cedar Key, an island community in northwest Florida, waters rose more than 9.5 feet (2.9 meters), among the highest surges ever seen, the National Weather Service said.
“This is one of the worst that we have seen in the city in a long time, and unfortunately, it is not over yet,” Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg, Florida, told reporters.