Idalia Creates a Day of Destruction and Rescues for Florida’s Big Bend

Date: Thursday, August 31st, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

Hurricane Idalia pummeled northern Florida as a Category 3 storm, flooding small towns, snapping trees and downing power lines after making landfall as the state’s second major hurricane in less than a year.

Idalia came ashore packing maximum sustained winds of 125 miles an hour, striking an area of the northern Gulf Coast known as the Big Bend before trekking quickly across the panhandle and plowing into Georgia. The experience was harrowing in places such as Crystal River, a coastal city of about 3,400 south of Idalia’s landfall spot, where the first responders were busy rescuing people from flooded homes.

“We’ve been rescuing people all day,” said Citrus County Deputy Jay Smith.

The storm also left nearly a half-million power customers in Florida and Georgia offline by late Wednesday afternoon, according to tracking site

Kala Noland and Devon Wheat swam down several roads in chest-high waters to assess the damage to their uninsured Crystal River family home, a four-bedroom property her parents purchased in 2007 for $1.8 million. They found a foot of water inside.

“We swam in and we paddle boarded out,” said Noland, 33 years old. She had planned to spend Labor Day weekend there with extended family.

Elsewhere on the coast, rescuers in the island city of Cedar Key checked on every one of the roughly 100 people who said they weren’t planning to heed evacuation orders. Lt. Scott Tummond of the Levy County Sheriff’s office said officials said they had no fatalities and one report of a minor injury.

The water swept in heaps of debris that were piled high on some streets in Cedar Key on Wednesday. The Faraway Inn, a waterfront hotel with colorful cottages, was ravaged. Its pavilion—where guests would sit on swings and watch the sunset— was reduced to a slab.

Aimee Firestine, who owns the hotel with her family and evacuated, arrived late Wednesday afternoon to survey the property.

“It is a little overwhelming,” said Firestine, 50. “It seems not real.”

In Perry, a small inland city, limbs from a statuesque pine tree crashed through the ceiling of LaShawn Poitier’s home. The former school-bus driver, 55, had just purchased the white house with black trim a few months ago.

“I brought the storm with me,” she joked, while waiting for an insurance company to assess the damage.

Dan Avery, 80, left his home near Keaton Beach—Idalia’s landfall site—to weather the storm in his auto mechanic’s shop. He tried to sleep behind the counter but retreated to a bathroom as conditions deteriorated. His 4-year-old bulldog, Brenda, “was shaking life a leaf,” Avery said.

“There’s a lot of debris, a lot of trees knocked down,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday, speaking from Perry. “There’s going to be a lot that’s going to be required to clean this up and to get everything back up and running again.”

Idalia is the second major hurricane to strike Florida in less than a year, following the destructive and deadly Hurricane Ian late September last year. Idalia then tore through southern Georgia, still at hurricane strength, on its way toward the coast of the Carolinas.

Despite the damage to small communities, the fact that Idalia hit a much more sparsely populated region than Ian appeared to spare Florida from a harsher impact. Ian had caused widespread damage and significant loss of life in southwest Florida.

There were early unconfirmed reports of traffic fatalities during Idalia, though they haven’t yet been officially linked to the storm, DeSantis said Wednesday afternoon. The storm’s track to the east of Tallahassee, after earlier forecasts suggested a more direct hit on the state’s capital city, might have helped.

“If that wall would have impacted Tallahassee, I think you would have seen significantly more damage,” DeSantis said. “That bend northeast really helped Tallahassee and Leon County.”

The storm caused some flooding in the Tampa Bay area but also spared the vulnerable coastal area a more severe hit by heading far to the north. Dog walkers and bicyclists began to emerge outside in Tampa on Wednesday morning.

“It could have been worse,” said Albert Larios, who lives on a major Tampa road that received some flooding.

Idalia slipped to tropical-storm strength as it neared the Georgia-South Carolina border. It is expected to remain a tropical storm as it emerges over the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday. Governors in Georgia and the Carolinas declared states of emergency as Idalia approached.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said at a briefing that some areas of southern Georgia got 9 to 10 inches of rain. He said there were no confirmed reports of injuries.

“The good thing is this is a narrow storm and it’s very fast moving, so it’s not sitting on us and dumping even more rain,” Kemp said.

In Florida, Mark and Tina Champagne’s Ford F-250 almost stalled in the water as they made their way to their Crystal River home for the first time since the storm hit.

Steinhatchee, a small fishing town about 70 miles northwest of Crystal River, got pummeled by a storm surge that inundated much of the tiny downtown and engulfed some homes close to the waterfront.

Reginald Edmonds, a 57-year-old resident, said he rode out the storm in his house at the edge of the Steinhatchee River, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. He and a group of friends ate pizza, drank beer and watched a movie until the power went out in the early-morning hours of Wednesday, he said.

As the storm bore down, nearby trees including thick oaks snapped and fell, some brushing against the windows of his house but not inflicting a direct strike. “It was a little spooky,” Edmonds said.

Water from the river rose roughly 8 to 10 feet by his estimate, submerging his dock and gazebo. A trailer where a friend behind the house of his lives took on about 3 feet of water, damaging it substantially.

Edmonds said he took a walk around Steinhatchee’s downtown after the storm on Wednesday, and much of it is underwater, including popular hangouts such as Fiddler’s Restaurant and Crabbie Dad’s, a local bar.

“The water damage is terrible around here,” Edmonds said. “This is the worst storm I’ve seen here.”


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