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Rain deterred beachgoers in Miami Beach, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2022, as Tropical Storm Nicole approached.

Rain deterred beachgoers in Miami Beach, Fla., on Nov. 8, 2022, as Tropical Storm Nicole approached. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Nearly six weeks after Hurricane Ian crashed into Florida, bringing fierce winds and catastrophic flooding to the southwest coast, the state's east coast is bracing for a second major storm that could threaten its nascent recovery efforts and strain the federal and state response.

Tropical Storm Nicole is expected to reach hurricane strength by Wednesday and make landfall on Florida's Atlantic coastline Wednesday night, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The storm's approach has prompted hurricane warnings for communities from Boca Raton to the Flagler-Volusia county line, meaning that those areas are likely to experience hurricane-force winds and flooding in the next 36 hours.

Nicole's arrival would present a challenge to emergency managers under any conditions. The storm is expected to deliver between 3 and 5 inches of rain, with up to 7 inches predicted in some areas. And it is barreling toward a densely populated coast where many communities already experience regular "nuisance flooding" when high tides are pushed even higher by sea level rise.

At a news conference Tuesday, Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais said the county plans to open two shelters, though it does not anticipate issuing evacuation orders. Home to Sanibel Island, Fort Myers Beach and Fort Myers, where Ian made landfall, the county recorded a death toll from the storm higher than anywhere in the state.

"We're cognizant of the fact that a lot of residents are living in damaged properties," Desjarlais said. "Some people are living in tents. Some people are living in homes that still require a lot of repair."

Coming on the heels of Ian, one of the most powerful storms to slam into the United States in the past decade, Nicole may also serve as a test of whether Florida is prepared for the escalating effects of climate change. Cascading disasters, such as the battery of floods, powerful rainstorms and heat waves that struck the United States in June, are becoming more common and are expected to hit coastal areas the hardest.

Several of the coastal and inland areas where Ian destroyed homes, tore up roads and left behind a staggering amount of wreckage were under a tropical storm watch Tuesday. That included Port Charlotte and Fort Myers, as well as the greater Tampa Bay region.

As Nicole nears, these communities have suddenly had to shift from post-storm cleanup to preparations for another potential disaster. Many roofs are covered by tarps — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed more than 18,000 since Ian made landfall on Sept. 28 — and some county officials are concerned that Nicole's winds could scatter the debris left in Ian's wake.

In Seminole County, north of Orlando, Ian and its remnants dumped unprecedented amounts of rain that turned creeks into rushing rivers. At a Tuesday news conference, Alan Harris, the county's emergency manager, warned residents that Nicole could bring more flooding and damage. "This is not the time for hurricane fatigue," he said.

Harris said he is particularly concerned that rainfall from Ian has left the ground saturated and weakened trees' root structures. "The winds could bring down trees, and those could bring down power lines," he said.

In areas that are still reeling from Ian, Nicole's arrival could slow recovery efforts, forcing federal and state agencies to make tough decisions about whether to shift employees from one disaster to another. On the state's east coast, basic government functions, such as debris removal after a storm, could be impeded by the fact that most major haulers are likely to be tied up on the western coast for months clearing downed trees and waterlogged drywall. If counties have to compete with one another for contractors, cleanup workers and equipment, it could drive up costs and make rebuilding difficult.

Florida's emergency management division announced this week that all of the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster recovery centers opened to help Floridians displaced by Ian will close this week until severe weather has passed. Thirty-four counties have been placed under a state of emergency, giving the agency broader authority and the state the ability to request federal assistance.

In its latest briefing Tuesday morning, FEMA said it had 2,400 employees in Florida in support of Ian recovery efforts.

FEMA press secretary Jeremy Edwards said the agency has staffers in Tallahassee who can work directly with state officials to respond to the storm.

"We also know that some areas in Florida remain vulnerable due to the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, and we stand ready to help those who may be impacted by Nicole prepare, while continuing to support those recovering from Ian," he said.

A spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers said the corps is positioning teams of coastal engineers so they can inspect for damage along the coast following the storm. It is also moving survey vessels and crews into place near certain ports.

On the state's east coast, local officials urged residents to take the storm seriously. Forecasters have advised residents not to focus on Nicole's exact track. Federal officials expect widespread flooding outside the storm's cone, affecting much of the state and parts of the Georgia coast.

On Tuesday evening, St. Johns County announced it was implementing a voluntary evacuation for its coastal communities, including the city of St. Augustine. Farther south, local officials in Martin and St. Lucie counties were also urging coastal residents to leave their homes. Meanwhile, some school systems in Florida, including in Miami-Dade County and Orlando — announced they were canceling classes on Wednesday.

Palm Beach County issued a mandatory evacuation order to take effect Wednesday morning for about 119,000 residents living in mobile homes, on barrier islands and in other low-lying areas. The county plans to open nine shelters.

At a news conference Tuesday, County Mayor Robert Weinroth said residents in flood-prone areas should not delay making decisions about whether to leave their homes. "If you are going to leave, this is the time to be making those plans," he said.

Yet he and other county officials also encouraged residents to vote, saying that preparations for the storm had "no impact on the elections."

Port Canaveral, a typically busy departure point for cruise lines, published an evacuation notice warning owners of vessels weighing under 500 gross tons to remove them from its waterways, warning the port "is not suitable for refuge during a hurricane."

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The Washington Post's Tim Craig in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., contributed to this report.

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