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Hurricane Idalia could hit Florida’s west coast as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center warned as Idalia continued to intensify and churn toward the state late Tuesday.
Officials across coastal communities repeatedly pleaded with residents Tuesday to immediately evacuate, stressing that high waters from the storm could prove deadly and first responders will not be able to help until the storm passes. But, desperate to save their homes and businesses and not leave others behind, some Floridians are staying put.
“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.”
The storm was at Category 2 with sustained winds of up to 110 mph late Tuesday shortly before midnight, centered roughly 120 miles southwest of Florida’s Cedar Key, the hurricane center said.
Its outer bands have been lashing Florida for hours, already causing flooding in some coastal areas. It’s expected to continue strengthening into a Category 4 hurricane – meaning sustained winds of at least 130 mph – before it reaches Florida’s Big Bend coast Wednesday morning.
“Destructive life-threatening” winds will hit the area where Idalia’s core moves onshore, the hurricane center warned. Storm surge inundation of 12 to 16 feet above ground level – high enough to stack a wall of seawater halfway up the second floor of an average building – and destructive waves could be “catastrophic” between the Wakulla-Jefferson County line and Yankeetown, Florida, the center said.
Strong wind will spread inland across northern Florida and southern Georgia near Idalia’s track, likely knocking out power along the way, the 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.” The county, just southeast of the state capital, Tallahassee, is part of the Big Bend region.
“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.
A tornado watch is also in effect for more than 7 million people across central and western Florida, including Tampa, until 6 a.m. Wednesday. Short-lived and usually weak tornadoes are often associated with the outer bands of tropical systems that make landfall.
‘We haven’t seen a storm this bad, ever’
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.
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Some Floridians stay to protect homes, livelihoods
“We got to see the destruction Hurricane Ian did down in Fort Myers … We’ve seen stuff I didn’t know a storm could do, and so it was a real big eye-opener to my whole family,” Norwood said. “With the insurance and stuff, we’re all worried and that’s why we’re kind of staying here to see if there’s anything that we can do to protect what we have.”
She says she’s worried about what the storm’s damage will mean for that community.
“Steinhatchee does not have the infrastructure to handle these storms,” Batts-Bennett said. “I fear that if this is catastrophic, the people that make Steinhatchee will not be able to be in Steinhatchee because they wont be able to rebuild.”
“The landscape of Steinhatchee will be changed forever,” she added.
Governor urges residents to seek higher ground
In pictures: Hurricane Idalia
“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.”
What else to know
• 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, South Carolina and Georgia have also declared states of emergency
• 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.