TAMPA — Residents on Florida’s Gulf coast filled sandbags, schools closed early and graduation ceremonies were postponed as Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency with Tropical Storm Colin churning toward the state Monday, threatening serious flooding.
A large portion of Florida’s western and Panhandle coast was already under a tropical storm warning when the National Hurricane Centre announced that a swift-moving depression had become a named storm. The center said it is the earliest that a third named storm has ever formed in the Atlantic basin.
Colin’s maximum sustained winds Monday morning had increased to near 50 miles per hour with some slow strengthening possible during the next two days. The storm was centred about 285 miles west-southwest
of Tampa and moving north-northeast near
16 miles per hour.
Early Monday, Ronald P. Milligan, 74, stopped by a park in St Petersburg where authorities planned to distribute sandbags because the ditch in front of his home had filled during the previous evening’s rain.
“If last night was a ‘no storm’ — and the water was almost up to the hump in my yard — I’m worried,” Milligan said, motioning to about knee level. He’s lived in Florida since the late 1970s and hasn’t ever prepared for a storm this early.
Sandbags also were being distributed in Tampa and nearby cities.
The latest forecast for Colin called for the storm to make landfall near the Big Bend area of Florida in the mid-afternoon, move across the Florida peninsula into Georgia and then move along or just off the South Carolina coast before heading out to sea.
Schools in at least one Florida Gulf Coast county planned to dismiss students early Monday. Pasco County, which had passed out about 20,000 sandbags so far, said schools would be letting out, and it was likely that county government would shut down around noon to get people off the road by 3 p.m.
In addition, two high school graduations in the Tampa Bay area were postponed due to the storms, with both ceremonies being moved to Wednesday night and Thursday. Winds from Colin also closed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa.
Farther north at Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, the storm’s arrival this afternoon was due at the same time as high tide, creating even higher risk of severe flooding, said Andrew Gude, manager of the refuge for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re taking chain saws home so we can cut our way out of our neighbourhoods and cut our way back into work tomorrow,” Gude said.
Colin is expected to produce rainfall amounts of three to five inches, and forecasters said up to eight inches are possible across western Florida, eastern Georgia and coastal areas of the Carolinas through Tuesday.
Forecasters also described Colin as a lopsided storm, with tropical storm-force winds extending up to 185 miles east of its centre.
A tropical storm warning was also in effect for the entire Georgia coast and the lower South Carolina coast.
Meanwhile, Governor Rick Scott postponed a political meeting with presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump scheduled Monday in New York so he can remain in the state capital to monitor the weather.
Scott warned residents not to simply look at the center of the storm, saying the heaviest rain will be to the east and west of it.
“I want everyone to be safe. I’ve talked to utilities and sheriff’s departments, but residents have to do their part,” Scott said.
Colin was expected to pass the Georgia coast before dawn Tuesday, said Dennis Jones, director of the Chatham County Emergency Management Agency.
Jones said flash floods appeared to pose the greatest threat, with the worst flood potential expected late Tuesday.
Allan Giese, 62, watched the start-and-stop rains Monday morning from his home about 150 yards from the St Marys River, where he’s seen larger storms bang up boats anchored in the nearby marina. He planned to bring his plywood work table inside, but otherwise simply ride out the storm inside with his wife.
“What it sounds like is just some heavy rains, but nothing torrential, not high winds,” Giese said. “We’ll just keep an eye on the tracker, go to bed and hunker down.”