By Stephanie Allen and Caitlin Doornbos
Tropical Storm Hermine will bring heavy rain and gusty winds to Central Florida through Friday as the storm continues to strengthen and shift to the northeast.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 51 counties Wednesday morning even before the depression became a named tropical storm.
All of Central Florida was included in Scott's declaration.
As of 11 p.m., Hermine was 315 miles west-southwest of Tampa, moving north at 10 mph with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph and higher wind gusts, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Over a three-hour period Wednesday night, Hermine moved 15 miles closer to Tampa.
Tropical storm winds are extending outward about 125 miles, "mainly to the east and southeast," according to the center.
The Hurricane Center said it predicts "steady intensification" during the next 24 hours.
Forecasters expect Hermine to make landfall Thursday night as a hurricane in the Big Bend area of Florida, cross the state into southeastern Georgia and then continue up the east coast. One of the biggest concerns is storm surge, with warnings of water as high as 6 feet near Indian Pass during high tide.
A hurricane watch is in effect from near Tarpon Springs to Destin.
Jessie Smith, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Melbourne, said the biggest threats to Central Florida will be gusty winds and heavy rain. Most of the area can expect 2 to 5 inches of rain through Friday, with locally higher amounts, she said.
There also is a chance for tornadoes Thursday night into Friday as strong squalls move through, she said.
"If there's anything unsecured in your yard that could be projectiles, go ahead and secure those things," she said.
Localized flooding is possible, Smith said, but for most of Central Florida, it will be "much needed rain" after an abnormally dry summer.
Most Central Florida counties are offering free sandbags for residents concerned about flooding, and many local emergency management offices say they're closely monitoring the system for any threats.
John Mulhall, spokesman for the Orange County Office of Emergency Management, said officials have been in frequent contact with forecasters. And although the storm isn't expected to directly hit Orange County, he said now is a good time to make sure residents are prepared.
"This is the wake-up call," he said. "The storm is probably just going to pass by us. This is a good time to do that check back to June when you said, 'Hey I'll get around to making those preparations.'"
Otherwise, he said, the storm shouldn't be a problem for most Orange County residents.
"Everything is pretty much business as usual, just preparing for a rain event," he said.
Things looked different Wednesday in Tallahassee, which is under a tropical storm warning.
Ed Wilson was at Winthrop Park in Tallahassee, shoveling dirt into bags to protect his home from flooding. A 10-year resident, he said he doesn't expect the storm to match the destruction of the 2004-2005 hurricane season, but he still was stocking up on water and gas.
"I live on a hill, so the water comes down," Wilson said. "I've got a couple of areas at my house that flood out, so I want to be prepared and get ready."
Bill Burke, another capital city resident, said he's been following the storm for a week, ever since it popped up below the Florida Keys.
"We took the generator out, ran some gas through it to make sure it was running," Burke said.
After the preparations are done, though, there's little else to do but wait and hope.
"We'll go out and say a prayer over our big trees and tell them to hang in there," Burke said.
The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday announced the closure of six state trial courts along the northern Gulf Coast because of the threat from Tropical Storm Hermine. Courthouses in Dixie, Lafayette and Taylor counties are shuttering half of Thursday and all of Friday. Courthouses in Gilchrist, Gulf and Levy counties will close on Thursday.
Staff Writer Gray Rohrer contributed to this report.
(c)2016 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)