Date: Wednesday, August 30th, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal
Hurricane Idalia continued to strengthen Tuesday night as forecasters said it is expected to collide with Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 storm packing life-threatening winds and a catastrophic storm surge.
Rain bands lashed the state, and conditions were expected to deteriorate through the night while Idalia intensifies on its final approach.
The storm is expected to make landfall early Wednesday in Florida’s Big Bend region, a sparsely populated area along Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline north of where the deadly Hurricane Ian hit last year. Idalia was about 125 miles west of Tampa late Tuesday evening.
More than 30 Florida counties issued some kind of evacuation order, including several with mandatory evacuations for vulnerable areas. Schools across the state have canceled classes.
“This is not something that you want to do battle with,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said as Idalia headed toward the state.
The storm Tuesday evening was packing maximum sustained winds up to 110 miles an hour, the upper edge of a Category 2 hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center. Idalia was expected to soon become a Category 3 storm, considered a major hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale, and to grow stronger yet before landfall.
Idalia could generate life-threatening storm surges of up to 16 feet in a region of the Big Bend stretching roughly 100 miles between the border of Wakulla and Jefferson counties and the small coastal community of Yankeetown, forecasters said. The island city of Cedar Key, which falls within that zone, could be completely cut off during the storm.
“If you’re there in that storm surge you’re putting your life in jeopardy when it gets to be that high,” DeSantis said.
Cedar Key resident Wolfgang Ausserbauer, 77 years old, said he wasn’t planning to evacuate. He moved to the small island city about three years ago after retiring as a doctor in Santa Barbara, Calif., and lives in a motor home with his schnauzer in a local RV park.
“Are you kidding? Storms go by here all the time,” Ausserbauer said, while waiting for a haircut Tuesday morning. “Even when they say ‘hurricane,’ it never is that big.”
Cedar Key City Commissioner Sue Colson had a one-word message for residents who plan to ride out the storm: “Leave.”
She advised residents to take cash, gas and medicine, and to secure loose items in their yard and on balconies. She expects water service will be cut off tonight. Cars, boats, trailers and forklifts for the local clam industry have been moved to the island’s highest point, the school, which sits at 30 feet elevation, she said.
“This is a very, very serious storm,” Colson said Tuesday morning, standing outside the town’s city hall.
“Two blocks this way, two blocks that way, two blocks that way,” she said, gesturing in each direction. “Water. And all the other little residential areas are connected by bridges. Any one of those bridges can be taken out. If they do, you’re stuck on your side.”
By 11 a.m. Tuesday, most shops around the island’s downtown were boarded up. City Hall had corrugated metal sheets outside the windows, while blue tape and yellow foam lined the lower part of the library’s doors.
Michael Brennan, director at the hurricane center, noted Tuesday that isolated areas around the Big Bend region could see up to a foot of rain, too. “Water is the hazard that kills almost 90% of people in tropical storms and hurricanes in this country,” he said during a briefing.
Idalia cut a northward path through the Gulf of Mexico and thrashed western Cuba on Monday after it formed as a tropical storm over the weekend, according to the hurricane center. The storm was expected to turn northeast and swirl over Florida, Georgia and the Southeast coast.
Idalia might remain at hurricane strength over at least part of Georgia. The storm’s rain could cause floods in the Southeast on Wednesday and Thursday, forecasters said.
Forecasters said the storm would gather strength from the unusually warm waters surrounding Florida.
A tropical-storm warning on Tuesday stretched from roughly the middle of Florida’s eastern shore into North Carolina, while a watch extended up to the Virginia border. The governors in Georgia and both Carolinas declared states of emergency on Tuesday.
DeSantis said 30,000 to 40,000 linemen would be staged by the end of the day Tuesday to respond to power outages. Among local utilities, Duke Energy, which covers the region likely to get hit, said it mobilized more than 5,000 responders.
President Biden spoke with DeSantis on Monday ahead of the storm and approved Florida’s federal emergency declaration. The governor also declared a state of emergency for dozens of counties.
The state is preparing 5,500 National Guard troops to help with storm relief efforts, DeSantis said. Tampa International Airport suspended commercial flights starting just after midnight Tuesday.
Parts of Florida are still recovering from last September’s Hurricane Ian, which left a trail of wreckage across the state and killed at least 140 people. Idalia is one of the first major storms of the Atlantic hurricane season, which is expected to be more active than usual.
Forecasts before landfall suggested Ian could hit the vulnerable Tampa Bay region hard, but it ended up tracking to the south. Tampa resident Lauren Dixon, who evacuated ahead of Ian, said she planned to ride out Idalia with her two dogs in her downtown apartment.
“I’m trying to get a bunch of walks in before we bunker down,” said Dixon, after attending a full Pilates class. “We’re not going to leave.”