Tropical Storm Gordon spent much of Tuesday morning and afternoon hovering less than 20 miles off the coast of the Florida Panhandle as it made its way west towards a Mississippi landfall.
While Northwest Florida was expected to feel relatively minimal effects from the storm, areas along the coast from Santa Rosa to Walton Counties were bracing for stronger-than-average winds and heavy rains throughout the day and into Tuesday night.
“Effects from the storm will be felt greater more towards the western end of the Panhandle,” Eric Esbensen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala., said Tuesday morning.
People appeared to be taking the storm in stride. Many were taking advantage of the day off from school in Okaloosa County and surfers were reaping the benefits of 8-foot swells. The beaches in Destin were crowded with people who were there to watch the storm roll in offshore.
"Everyone has actually been pretty well behaved and we haven't had to pull anybody out of the water," said Destin Beach Safety Chief Joe D'Agostino, who made the decision to fly double red flags, closing the water to swimmers. "I think when you look at how rough the water is today, it's pretty self-explanatory."
D'Agostino said he expected the water to be closed Wednesday as well.
On Okaloosa Island, the beach was nearly empty around noon as the wind picked up and heavy rain began to fall. A stray seagull fought the wind gusts and appeared to be floating in space over the volleyball nets. But underneath the shelter of the Boardwalk, a few people had gathered to watch the storm heave by in the distance and take pictures and videos.
Danielle Benoit and her son, S.J, mom Laurie and daughter Destiny Caron made the drive from Crestview to Okaloosa Island to observe Gordon from afar. S.J. who attends Walker Elementary School, and Destiny, a senior at Crestview High School, said they were happy to have the day off from school.
“We’re not at school today so it’s pretty nice,” Destiny said with a big grin, adding that she still had to go to her job at Burger King later that day.
S.J. joked that he’d like to go swimming with a boogie board out in the Gulf of Mexico. His mom held him tight and said that wouldn’t be happening.
“This is our first time coming out here to the beach for a storm,” said Danielle, who added she had also been through Hurricanes Opal and Ivan but didn’t do much outside observing for those storms. “I normally try to stay away from them…I think cause we’re on the east side of the storm, we’re going to get some bad weather, but I don’t think it’s going to be too bad.”
Kevin Holder, a Fort Walton Beach resident, stood underneath the Boardwalk and marveled at the waves.
“I’ve never seen the Gulf this rough,” he said. “But it ain’t that bad, really.”
Okaloosa County emergency officials opted not to activate the emergency operations center for the storm, saying the area wasn’t expected to see sustained tropical storm force winds.
In Fort Walton Beach and Santa Rosa County, officials were making sandbags available to residents around mid-morning in anticipation of possible flash flooding. Officials closed the road connecting Navarre Beach to Pensacola Beach at 4 p.m. in anticipation of possible flooding.
Gordon is the first tropical system to impact Northwest Florida since hurricane season began June 1. Subtropical Storm Alberto made landfall in Panama City Beach on May 28, and the Atlantic Basin hasn’t produced any storms that threatened the United States since then.
It was approaching hurricane strength Tuesday evening, but as of press time was still a tropical storm.