Hurricane Nicole forces hundreds to flee homes in Bahamas, heads toward Florida

A Florida-bound storm strengthened into Hurricane Nicole on Wednesday evening as it pounded the Bahamas, and state officials ordered evacuations that included former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.

Storm could impact Atlantic Canada this weekend

A message scrawled on the side of a boarded-up business urges people to 'stay safe,' in Fort Pierce, Fla., on Wednesday ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Nicole. (Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters)

A Florida-bound storm strengthened into Hurricane Nicole on Wednesday evening as it pounded the Bahamas, and state officials ordered evacuations that included former U.S. president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.

It's a rare November hurricane for storm-weary Florida, where only two such hurricanes have made landfall since record-keeping began in 1853: the 1935 Yankee Hurricane and Hurricane Kate in 1985.

Nicole, currently a Category 1 storm, was expected to reach Florida late Wednesday or early Thursday and unleash a storm surge that could further erode many beaches hit by Hurricane Ian in September before heading into Georgia and the Carolinas later Thursday and Friday. It was expected to dump heavy rain across the region.

Nicole's centre was about 125 kilometres east-northeast of West Palm Beach, Fla., late Wednesday, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said. It had maximum sustained winds of 120 km/h and was moving west at 20 km/h.

Hundreds in shelters

The sprawling storm became a hurricane as it slammed into Grand Bahama, having made landfall just hours earlier on Great Abaco island as a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 112 km/h.

Nicole is the first storm to hit the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the archipelago in 2019.

Waves wash ashore on Surf Road, near Desoto Street, in Hollywood Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, as Nicole moved toward the Florida coast. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/The Associated Press)

In the Bahamas, officials said more than 860 people were in more than two dozen shelters. Extensive flooding, downed trees and power and water outages were reported in the archipelago's northwest region.

Authorities were especially concerned about a large Haitian community in Great Abaco that was destroyed by Dorian and has since grown from 20 hectares to 80 hectares.

The ocean is whipped up by the storm near Anglin's Fishing Pier on Wednesday in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"Do not put yourselves in harm's way," said Zhivago Dames, assistant commissioner of police information as he urged everyone to stay indoors. "Our first responders are out there. However, they will not put their lives in danger."

The storm could hit Atlantic Canada by the weekend, bringing rain, wind and mild temperatures to the region, according to Environment Canada.

The federal weather agency has issued tropical cyclone information statements for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Îles-de-la-Madeleine in Quebec.

Evacuation order

In Florida, the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office said in a tweet earlier Wednesday that storm surge from tropical storm Nicole had already breached the sea wall along Indian River Drive, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean. The Martin County Sheriff's office also said seawater had breached part of a road on Hutchinson Island.

Residents in at least three Florida counties — Flagler, Palm Beach and Volusia — were ordered to evacuate from barrier islands, low-lying areas and mobile homes. Volusia, home to Daytona Beach, imposed a curfew and warned that intercoastal bridges used by evacuees would close when winds reach more than 60 km/h.

The view of the intracoastal waterway from Mar-a-Lago, former U.S. president Donald Trump's club in Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Mar-a-Lago, Trump's club and home, is in one of those evacuation zones, sitting a few hundred metres inland from the ocean. The main buildings sit on a small rise that is about 4.6 metres above sea level, and the property has survived numerous stronger hurricanes since it was built nearly a century ago.

The resort's security office hung up Wednesday when an Associated Press reporter asked whether the club was being evacuated, and there was no sign of evacuation by early afternoon. There is no penalty for ignoring an evacuation order, but rescue crews will not respond if it puts their members at risk.

Theme parks, airports shut down

In Palm Beach County, some 350 people checked into seven evacuation centres, including Hidir Dontar, a software engineer carrying a backpack and plastic bag with his belongings. He said he didn't want to stay in his apartment because the landlord wasn't putting shutters over the windows, something that didn't feel safe having lived through "one bad one," 2004's Hurricane Frances.

"I didn't want to be in the middle of the storm, have something go wrong and wonder, 'What do I do now?"' Dontar said.

A lifeguard hut sits by the ocean as the storm made its presence felt in Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Wednesday. It strengthened into a hurricane later in the day. (Ricardo Ramirez/Orlando Sentinel/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, officials in Daytona Beach Shores deemed unsafe at least a half dozen, multi-storey, coastal residential buildings already damaged by Hurricane Ian and now threatened by Nicole. At some locations, authorities went door-to-door telling people to grab their possessions and leave.

Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort announced they were closing early on Wednesday and likely would not reopen as scheduled on Thursday.

Palm Beach International Airport closed Wednesday morning, and Daytona Beach International Airport said it would cease operations. Orlando International Airport, the seventh busiest in the United States, was set to close in the afternoon.

Further south, officials said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport were experiencing some flight delays and cancellations but both planned to remain open.

At a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla., Gov. Ron DeSantis said winds were the biggest concern and significant power outages could occur, but he added that 16,000 linemen were on standby to restore power, as well as 600 guardsmen and seven search-and-rescue teams.

"It will affect huge parts of the state of Florida all day," DeSantis said of the storm's expected landing.

Almost two dozen school districts were closing schools for the storm, and 15 shelters had opened along Florida's east coast, the governor said.

Emergency declared for dozens of counties

Forty-five of Florida's 67 counties were under a state-of-emergency declaration.

Florida Division of Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie said Floridians should expect possible tornadoes, rip currents and flash flooding.

Bahamas Prime Minister Philip "Brave" Davis, who is at the COP27 United Nations climate summit in Egypt, drew attention to the link between storms and climate change.

"There have always been storms, but as the planet warms from carbon emissions, storms are growing in intensity and frequency," he said. "For those in Grand Bahama and Abaco, I know it is especially difficult for you to face another storm."

New warnings

New warnings and watches were issued for many parts of Florida, including the southwestern Gulf coastline that was devastated by Hurricane Ian, which struck as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 28. The storm destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state — damage that many are still dealing with.

In Florida, the "combination of a dangerous storm surge and the tide will cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline," the hurricane centre said.

This satellite image shows Nicole approaching the northwestern Bahamas and Florida's Atlantic coastline on Tuesday. (NOAA/The Associated Press)

Brown, of the National Hurricane Center, said the storm will affect a large part of the state.

"Because the system is so large, really almost the entire east coast of Florida except the extreme southeastern part and the Keys is going to receive tropical storm force winds," he said.

Early Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden declared an emergency in Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement state, tribal and local response efforts to the approaching storm. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still responding to those in need from Hurricane Ian.