MIAMI -- Shortly after Hurricane Nicole made landfall early Thursday along the east coast of Florida, it downgraded to a tropical storm but it was still battering a large area of the storm-weary state with strong winds, dangerous storm surge and heavy rain, officials said.
The rare November hurricane had already led officials to shut down airports and theme parks and order evacuations that included former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.
Authorities warned that Nicole's storm surge could further erode many beaches hit by Hurricane Ian in September. The sprawling storm is then forecast to head into Georgia and the Carolinas later Thursday and Friday, dumping heavy rain across the region.
Nicole had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph early Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The storm was about 60 miles southeast of Orlando. It was moving west-northwest near 14 mph.
Tropical storm force winds extended as far as 450 miles from the center in some directions. Nicole is expected to move across central Florida Thursday morning, possibly emerge over the far northeastern Gulf of Mexico in the afternoon, and then move across the Florida Panhandle and Georgia late Thursday and on Friday.
A few tornadoes will be possible through early Thursday across east-central to northeast Florida, the weather service said. Flash and urban flooding will be possible, along with renewed river rises on the St. Johns River, across the Florida Peninsula on Thursday. Heavy rainfall from this system will spread northward across portions of the southeast, eastern Ohio Valley, Mid-Atlantic, and New England through Saturday.
Large swells generated by Nicole will affect the northwestern Bahamas, the east coast of Florida, and much of the southeastern United States coast over the next few days.
Additional weakening is forecast while Nicole moves over land during the next day or two, and the storm is likely to become a tropical depression over Georgia Thursday night or early Friday.
Nicole became a hurricane Wednesday evening as it slammed into Grand Bahama Island, having made landfall just hours earlier on Great Abaco island as a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph. It is the first storm to hit the Bahamas since Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the archipelago in 2019.
For storm-weary Floridians, it is only the third November hurricane to hit their shores since recordkeeping began in 1853. The previous ones were the 1935 Yankee Hurricane and Hurricane Kate in 1985.
Mar-a-Lago, Trump's club and home, was in one of those evacuation zones, built about a quarter-mile inland from the ocean. The main buildings sit on a small rise that is about 15 feet 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 Wednesday afternoon.
There is no penalty for ignoring an evacuation order, but rescue crews will not respond if it puts their members at risk.
Officials in Daytona Beach Shores deemed unsafe at least a half dozen, multi-story, 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 likely would not open as scheduled Thursday.
Palm Beach International Airport closed Wednesday morning, and Daytona Beach International Airport said it would suspend operations. Orlando International Airport, the seventh busiest in the U.S., also closed. Farther south, officials said Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airport experienced some flight delays and cancellations but both planned to remain open.
At a news conference in Tallahassee, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that winds were the biggest concern and significant power outages could occur, but 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.
Forty-five of Florida's 67 counties were under a state of emergency declaration.
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 Sept. 28. The storm destroyed homes and damaged crops, including orange groves, across the state. - damage that many are still dealing with.
Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center, said the storm would 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, 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.
Hurricane Ian brought storm surge of up to 13 feet in late September, causing widespread destruction.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller in Washington and Terry Spencer in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.