Idalia weakened to a tropical storm Wednesday evening as it trekked across the Southeast, threatening parts of Georgia and the Carolinas with strong winds and flooding after pummeling parts of Florida.
“Right now, it’s still a catastrophic event,” Frink said. “All the homes around us, they’re all underwater.”
In nearby coastal Pasco County, just north of Tampa, roughly 6,000 homes were “inundated with water,” according to one official.
The storm was whipping 70 mph winds and was roughly 40 miles west of Savannah, Georgia, according to a 5 p.m. advisory from the National Hurricane Center.
The risks of storm surge, freshwater flooding and strong winds remain for parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, the center said. Idalia’s center will move close to or along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina through Wednesday night before moving offshore near North Carolina’s coast Thursday, the hurricane center said.
In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp said multiple counties in the southern portion of the state have been seeing powerful winds Wednesday, and are expecting heavy rain.
Up to 10 inches of rain could drop over parts of east-central Georgia to central and eastern South Carolina and through eastern North Carolina into Thursday, the hurricane center said.
“These rainfall amounts will lead to areas of flash, urban, and moderate river flooding, with considerable impacts,” the center added.
Tornadoes are also possible through Wednesday evening across coastal South Carolina and coastal North Carolina Wednesday night.
Danger not over in Florida, officials warn
In storm-ravaged Florida, authorities warn that while the sky there may be clearing, the danger is not yet over.
“We still have a lot of water coming into the Tampa Bay area, make sure that you’re not driving through any standing water,” Wilcoxen said.
“Where I’m standing right now could potentially be under 6 feet of water by the time we get the high tide” late Wednesday afternoon, he said.
“We fear that residents will walk outside, see it’s sunny outside and think everything’s fine. But there’s more water coming,” warned Rob Herrin, spokesperson for Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. “There’s still so many hazards after the winds and rains have cleared.”
Prendergast urged people not to venture into the water filling the streets.
“Don’t get out onto that water, because it is salt water mixed in with a lot of other things,” the sheriff said.
“It’s going to destroy your vehicles, and then it’s going to give you a costly repair bill whenever you get past the storm.”
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2 men killed in weather-related crashes
Idalia slammed Florida’s Big Bend area – the nook between the panhandle and peninsula – near Keaton Beach Wednesday morning at a dangerous Category 3 strength. That part of the Gulf Coast hasn’t seen such deadly storm surge and wind gust for at least 125 years.
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“Conditions will gradually start to improve in Florida later today, but the water levels are going to remain elevated – especially along the Big Bend coast down into Tampa through much of the day today,” National Hurricane Center Director Michael Brennan said Wednesday.
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At least two men were killed in separate, weather-related car crashes Wednesday, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said. Their deaths mark the first reported fatalities linked to Hurricane Idalia.
In the vulnerable island city of Cedar Key, a water level record was shattered amid 8 to 9 feet of storm surge. And the water was still rising fast – predicted to hurl seawater as high as halfway up the second floor of an average building.
Swaths of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers Beach also have been engulfed by wind-whipped seawater and torrential rain.
‘We’re effectively cut off from the world now’
The island city of Cedar Key looked “almost apocalyptic” even before landfall, resident Michael Bobbitt said Wednesday morning. Hours later, the disastrous storm surge had overwhelmed it.
“We’re effectively cut off from the world now,” Bobbit said. “It’s going to get a lot worse, and I’m really fearful for what we’re going to find in some of the low-lying areas and some of our older, more infirm citizens today.”
Storm surge accounts for about half of all hurricane-related deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
Here are other developments from across the region:
• Air travel halted: Hundreds of flights have been canceled as Tampa International Airport suspended commercial operations and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Terminal building closed Tuesday.
“Tampa airport is going to reopen for incoming flights at 4 p.m.,” DeSantis said Wednesday. “By 3 a.m. tomorrow, it will be fully reopened.” The governor said airports in Gainesville and Tallahassee are also scheduled to reopen Thursday morning.
In Georgia, the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport announced Wednesday flights out of the airport were canceled for the rest of the day.
• Bridges are shut down: Major bridges connecting St. Petersburg to mainland Florida have been closed, according to online data from the Florida Department of Transportation. Road access to smaller barrier islands also is closed, Pinellas County Emergency Management said on X, formerly Twitter.
• Power knocked out: About 262,000 homes, businesses and other power customers in Florida and about 208,000 in Georgia had no electricity around 4 p.m. Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.com.
• 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. An emergency declaration covers 49 of 67 Florida counties.
• Thousands are in shelters: About 4,500 people are taking refuge in shelters in the impact area, Red Cross data Wednesday shows. The most people – 442 – were at a site in Largo, Florida, with more than 100 shelters open across the storm’s path, the aid group said.
• Hospitals suspend services: Patients were being transferred from at least three hospitals: HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, HCA Florida Trinity West Hospital and HCA Florida West Tampa Hospital. Meanwhile, Tampa General Hospital was constructing a water-impermeable barrier to stay open for emergency care.
• Schools and universities close: 50 county school districts issued closures, as did dozens of college and university systems across Florida.
• Thousands of inmates evacuated: About 4,000 inmates were evacuated or relocated to facilities better equipped to handle the storm, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.