WEATHER NEWS: Tropical Storm Nicole expected to hit Florida at hurricane strength


Hurricane warnings are in effect for parts of the east coast of Florida as Tropical Storm Nicole intensifies on approach to the Sunshine State. Confidence has grown that Nicole will be a hurricane when it makes landfall Wednesday night or early Thursday.

Nicole’s peak winds increased from 45 to 65 mph Tuesday, just 10 mph from hurricane strength as it transitioned from a subtropical storm — with both tropical and mid-latitude characteristics — to fully tropical. Additional intensification is forecast before Nicole hits Florida.

Rain, strong winds and coastal flooding could begin along Florida’s east coast early Wednesday, with deteriorating conditions in the afternoon and especially at night.

Hurricane warnings — representing the threat of winds reaching 74 mph — span from Boca Raton to the Flagler-Volusia county line. Tropical storm warnings are in effect for the rest of Florida’s east coast north of Miami, as well as the coast of southern Georgia, connoting a high likelihood of tropical storm impacts.

Strong onshore winds, primarily near and north of Nicole’s center, could spur “life-threatening” storm-surge flooding as water is piled up against the coast over multiple tide cycles, according to the National Hurricane Center. A storm surge warning, for a dangerous rise in water above normally dry land, blankets the east coast of Florida and portions of coastal Georgia.

On Tuesday afternoon, mandatory evacuation orders were issued for vulnerable zones of Palm Beach and Volusia counties in Florida in anticipation of the surge. Brevard and Martin counties advocated voluntary evacuation for some residences. Zones of greatest concern include barrier islands, mobile homes and homes in areas prone to flooding.

Ahead of the storm, Orlando International Airport announced it would cease commercial operations at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Tracking Subtropical Storm Nicole

Meanwhile, tropical storm watches have been expanded to include the gulf side of Florida, as well, primarily from north of Bonita Beach to the Big Bend area. That encompasses Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, both hit hard by Category 4 Hurricane Ian barely six weeks ago, as well as the greater Tampa area.

An ocean surge of up to several feet could affect areas around Tampa Bay and just to the north on Florida’s west coast; this area is under a storm surge watch.

The National Hurricane Center expects that Subtropical Storm Nicole will create hurricane conditions in southeast and east-central Florida late Wednesday. (Video: The Washington Post)

Tropical storm watches were also expanded north along the Southeast coast, stretching from near Savannah, Ga., to just north of Charleston.

Nicole, or Nicole’s remnants, will sweep up the East Coast from Friday into the weekend, dropping heavy rain from the Carolinas to Canada. For many locations, an entire month’s worth of rain could fall in as little as 24 hours.

On Tuesday afternoon, Nicole was 285 miles northeast of the northwest Bahamas. Maximum winds were estimated at 65 mph, and the storm was moving west at 10 mph. The storm’s wind field is enormous — 40 mph tropical-storm-force winds expand outward up to 380 miles from the center.

Nicole, previously a subtropical storm, or a tropical-nontropical hybrid, morphed into a fully tropical storm Tuesday. This occurred as the previously lopsided system saw thunderstorms developing around its core. The Hurricane Center noted that a “curved convective band wrapped about three-quarters of the way around” the storm’s center in its afternoon update.

Passing over warm waters, Nicole is forecast to gradually intensify through Wednesday, reaching hurricane strength near the northwest Bahamas, which also are under a hurricane warning.

Nicole is likely to make landfall somewhere between Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning as a Category 1 hurricane with winds near 75 mph.

Tropical-storm-force winds could begin 18 hours or more ahead of its arrival — or as soon as Wednesday afternoon in southeast Florida and Wednesday evening toward the Treasure and Space coasts. Persistent onshore flow will result in coastal flooding over the duration of several tide cycles.

In fact, most of the Atlantic coastline of Florida should see a storm surge of up to 3 to 5 feet. That may not sound like much, but tens of thousands of Florida homes are within 5 feet of sea level.

The National Weather Service wrote the surge could have “significant impacts,” especially from Palm Beach northward with damage to buildings, marinas, docks and piers, as well as washed out roads and major beach erosion.

“Evacuation efforts and flood preparations should … be brought to completion before conditions become unsafe,” the National Weather Service wrote. “Leave immediately if evacuation orders are given for your area to avoid being cut off from emergency services or needlessly risk[ing] lives.”

Rain bands and squalls will pivot onshore early Wednesday morning but will increase in coverage and intensity during the afternoon. A few of the squalls, primarily within 20 miles of Florida’s east coast, could produce tornadoes or waterspouts north of the storm’s center, especially between Palm Beach and near Daytona Beach.

Winds will be on the order of 30 to 45 mph on Wednesday along the coastline but will increase to 45 to 60 mph within about 50 miles of Nicole’s center, with gusts to 75 mph and higher possible within its narrow core.

A widespread 3 to 5 inches of rainfall with localized 6 to 8 inch totals can be expected in eastern Florida, with an inch or two less to the west.

“Flash and urban flooding will be possible across portions of the Florida Peninsula along with renewed river rises on portions of the St. Johns River,” the Hurricane Center wrote.

Eventually, Nicole’s waterlogged circulation and remnants will be scooped up the Eastern Seaboard by an approaching trough, or dip in the jet stream. Its moisture will pool along a cold front draped along the Appalachians, bringing 2 to 3.5 inches of rain between there and the Interstate 95 corridor. The key time frame for this rain event would be Friday and Saturday.

“[F]lash, urban and small stream flooding will be possible in the Southeast through the Mid-Atlantic and central Appalachians,” the Hurricane Center wrote Tuesday afternoon.

If Nicole comes ashore in Florida at hurricane strength, it would be a highly unusual event: The Lower 48 has recorded only five landfalling November hurricanes since the mid-1850s. That would make it a once in roughly 30- to 40-year event.

Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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