Hurricane Idalia is now a Category 2 storm as it approaches Florida, threatening a potentially catastrophic collision with the state’s west coast while officials plead with residents to evacuate.
The storm was packing 100 mph winds Tuesday evening, and its outer bands have been lashing Florida for hours, already causing flooding in some coastal areas. By Tuesday night, parts of the state’s Gulf Coast should expect “life-threatening” storm surge – when the storm’s winds push the ocean onshore – and hurricane conditions, the National Hurricane Center said.
“There is great potential for death and catastrophic devastation,” the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office warned on Tuesday, saying coastal residents were ordered to evacuate. “Storm surge on the coastal regions are projected as non-survivable.”
Idalia will continue getting stronger until it makes landfall as an expected Category 3 hurricane Wednesday morning in Florida’s Big Bend region, which includes Taylor County and is just southeast of the state capital, Tallahassee. Idalia will bring powerful winds and a potential storm surge of 10 to 15 feet to the area – high enough to stack a wall of seawater halfway up the second floor of an average building.
“That is storm surge that, if you’re there while that hits, it’s going to be very difficult to survive,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Tuesday evening news conference.
On the island city of Cedar Key, on the southern side of the Big Bend, Mayor Heath Davis urged residents under a mandatory evacuation order to leave immediately.
“This storm is worse than we’ve ever seen. My family has been here for many generations, we haven’t seen a storm this bad, ever,” he said Tuesday. All emergency services will stop Tuesday evening as winds pick up, the mayor said, adding he does not want to put employees’ lives in danger.
Cedar Key could be cut off by the high storm surge, National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Jamie Rhome said.
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Parts of Levy County, where Cedar Key is, could see “powerful battering waves” and life-threatening flooding, and many buildings could be damaged or washed away, the National Weather Service said.
DeSantis stressed Tuesday that residents under evacuation orders should leave now, as weather conditions will only deteriorate.
“If you do choose to stay in one of the evacuation zones, first responders will not be able to get you until after the storm has passed,” he added. Nearly 600 urban search and rescue personnel were prepared to be deployed to help in those efforts, the governor said.
Storm surge was captured on video Tuesday by several residents across southwest Florida, including Fort Myers Beach, a community still reeling from the devastation it suffered last fall from Hurricane Ian – which leveled coastal Florida and left more than 100 dead. Florida resident Scott Martin shared a video on Facebook showing roads in Fort Myers Beach already flooded and the “storm hasn’t even hit,” he wrote.
The hurricane was roughly 195 miles southwest of Tampa at roughly 5 p.m. ET, the hurricane center said.
While the center of the hurricane isn’t expected to make landfall in the Tampa area, any wobble or shift in its track over the next 12 hours dramatically increases the region’s surge levels, already forecast to be dangerous.
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“The No. 1 killer in all of these storms is water, whether it’s the storm surge that’s going to happen at the coast or the excessive rainfall that might happen inland that causes urban flash flooding,” she said.
Storm surge accounts for nearly half of all hurricane-related fatalities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, and is the reason behind most storm evacuations.
State and local officials reminded residents they often don’t have to go far – tens of miles, versus hundreds – to get to a safer place.
“You do not have to leave the state,” DeSantis said. “Get to higher ground in a safe structure. You can ride the storm out there and go back to your home.”
“If you haven’t evacuated, you’re north of Fort Myers, you’re up into the central Gulf Coast, northern Big Bend area, if you have not evacuated, you need to do that right now. You need to drop what you’re doing, you need to go to your room, pack up, pack your things, and get to safety,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Executive Director Kevin Guthrie warned Tuesday evening.
“We’re going to experience historical flood surge.”
Here’s the latest:
• Evacuations in at least 28 counties: Alachua, Baker, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Levy, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Pasco, Pinellas, Putnam, Sarasota, Suwannee, Sumter, Taylor, Union, Volusia and Wakulla have all issued evacuation orders, some mandatory. State tolls are waived in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Pasco, Pinellas, and Sumter counties, DeSantis said Tuesday. All counties have at least one pet-friendly shelter, the governor added, urging residents to “please take care of your pets.”
• Air and train travel halted: Major airlines have canceled hundreds of flights as Tampa International Airport suspended commercial operations Tuesday and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Terminal building closed Tuesday afternoon. Amtrak has canceled at least 12 East Coast routes and is modifying others.
• Emergencies declared: DeSantis expanded an emergency declaration to 49 of 67 Florida counties on Monday morning. Several local jurisdictions have also declared emergencies. North Carolina and Georgia have also declared states of emergency.
• National Guard activated: More than 5,500 Guard members have been activated for storm response. Florida officials also activated eight search and rescue teams and stationed over 580 rescue personnel to help, officials said Tuesday. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also deployed search and rescue teams to assist with disaster response in Florida.
• Power outages expected: DeSantis told residents to prepare to be without power. “If you are in the path of the storm, you should expect power outages so please prepare for that,” the governor told residents Sunday.
• Hospital system suspending services: Patients will be transferred from at least three hospitals: HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, HCA Florida Trinity West Hospital and HCA Florida West Tampa Hospital.
“We want everyone to take this storm seriously,” Barbara Tripp, Tampa’s Fire Rescue Chief said during a news conference, adding residents also should clear debris from property and look out for neighbors who may need help.
“Once the wind reaches a certain miles per hour, Tampa Fire Rescue will not be able to respond,” Tripp warned.