Hurricane Idalia strengthens to Category 2 as it roars towards millions of people in Florida

Hurricane Idalia strengthened to a Category 2 storm with 165 km/h winds on Tuesday evening, as it barrelled toward Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The hurricane was projected to come ashore early Wednesday as a Category 3 system with sustained winds of up to 193 km/h in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula.

At 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, Idalia was about 250 kilometres west-southwest of Tampa, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was moving north at 26 km/h.

The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have ever passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend region.

“You still have time this morning to make your final preparations … but you got to do that now,” Gov. Ron DeSantis announced at the state’s emergency operations centre.

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Hurricane Idalia: How to prepare for a storm that could kill | About That

Hurricane Idalia is expected to cause life-threatening storm surges and high winds when it slams into Florida as a Category 3 hurricane early Wednesday. Andrew Chang explains why this storm is so dangerous and the effort underway to keep people safe.

“Right now, the biggest hazards are storm surge,” Robbie Berg, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane centre in Miami, said Tuesday. “We’re expecting a surge as much as eight to 12 feet above normal tide levels in portions of the Big Bend area of Florida.”

Still recovering from Ian

The result could be a big blow to a state still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian, which was one of the strongest storms ever to hit the U.S. mainland in terms of wind speed.

It hit land just shy of a Category 5, with sustained winds of 241 km/h. It killed 150 people and damaged 52,000 homes, businesses and other structures, nearly 20,000 of which were destroyed or severely damaged.

Though Idalia’s track is different from Ian’s, it has already devastated Cuba, especially in the westernmost part of the island, where the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Rio was still recovering from Ian.

Woman leans in the doorway of a tin shack, surrounded by muddy water
A woman stands at the front door of her home after Idalia’s passage in La Coloma, Cuba, Tuesday. The area is still recovering from last year’s hit by Hurricane Ian. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

More than 10,000 people evacuated to shelters or stayed with friends and relatives as up to 0 centimetres of rain fell. More than half of the province was without electricity.

Hurricane Michael, in October 2018, followed a similar path to Idalia, but further north. It slammed into the Florida Panhandle with sustained winds of 257 km/h. At least 74 deaths were attributed to that storm, including 59 in the U.S. and 15 in Central America.

How Michael and Ian’s paths compare to Idalia

Lisa Lavoie lost her home to Hurricane Ian. She and her husband had been watching the storm coverage and felt prepared, until the storm suddenly intensified and changed course — and was heading straight for them.

“At that point, there’s nowhere to go. It was too late,” she said in an interview with CBC’s Katie Nicholson. The storm surge came just 10 or 15 minutes later, she said and they were sudden;y wading through waist-deep water. 

“It just was so fast. And, I think they call it a Category 3 surge water, which meant that, you know, it was raw sewage and all kinds of chemicals and, you know, it bubbles up from the ground. And so we lost everything.”

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One year ago, Florida resident Lisa Lavoie lost her home to Hurricane Ian. Now in the path of Hurricane Idalia, she says people just don’t understand the potential destruction of these storms.

‘One word — leave’

On the island of Cedar Key, off the northwest coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico, Commissioner Sue Colson joined other city officials in packing up documents and electronics at City Hall. 

She had a message for the almost 900 residents who were under mandatory orders to evacuate the island near the coast of the Big Bend region. More than a dozen state troopers went door to door warning residents that storm surge could rise as high as 4.5 metres. 

“One word — leave,” Colson said. “It’s not something to discuss.”

But not everyone was heeding the warning. Andy Bair, owner of the Island Hotel, said he intended to “babysit” his bed-and-breakfast, which predates the Civil War. The building has not flooded in the almost 20 years he has owned it, not even when Hurricane Hermine flooded the city in 2016.

“Being a the caretaker of the oldest building in Cedar Key, I just feel kind of like I need to be here,” Bair said. “We’ve proven time and again that we’re not going to wash away. We may be a little uncomfortable for a couple of days, but we’ll be OK eventually.”

An old town street with wooden structures and a man walking by
A man walks along 2nd Street, where businesses and residents were preparing for potential flooding, ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia in Cedar Key, Fla, Tuesday. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

National Guard mobilized

DeSantis earlier declared a state of emergency in 46 counties, a broad swath that stretches across the northern half of the state from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

The state has mobilized 1,100 National Guard members, who have 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft at their disposal for rescue and recovery efforts, while about 30,000 utility workers were reportedly ready to make repairs in the hurricane’s wake.

“You do not have to leave the state,” DeSantis said. “You don’t have to drive hundreds of miles. You have to get to higher ground in a safe structure. You can ride the storm out there, then go back to your home.” 

Tolls were waived on highways out of the danger area, shelters were open and hotels prepared to take in evacuees. More than 30,000 utility workers were gathering to make repairs as quickly as possible in the hurricane’s wake.

Idalia’s initial squalls were being felt in the Florida Keys and the southwestern coast of Florida on Tuesday afternoon, including at Clearwater Beach. Workers at beachside bars and T-shirt shops boarded up windows, children skim-surfed the waves and hundreds of people watched the increasingly choppy waters from the safety of the sand.

WATCH | Idalia drenches Cuba en route to Florida:

Idalia soaks battered Cuba with heavy rains

Tropical Storm Idalia thrashed Cuba with punishing rains Sunday, as nearly 10 centimetres fell in some areas and authorities monitored the Cuyaguateje river for possible flooding.

Tampa International Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport closed on Tuesday, and the Sunrail commuter rail service in Orlando was being suspended.

St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to be complacent.

“It is my hope and prayer that you have your emergency plan in place and you are executing that plan,” Welch said at a news conference. “Time is running short to make sure you are prepared for this storm.”

Storm surge risk

In Tarpon Springs, a coastal community northwest of Tampa, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital out of concern that the system could bring a 2.1-metre storm surge.

Large parts of the western coast of Florida are at risk for storm surges and floods. Evacuation notices have been issued in 21 counties with mandatory orders for some people in eight of those counties.

Many of the notices were for people in low-lying and coastal areas, for those living in structures such as mobile and manufactured homes, recreational vehicles and boats, and for people who would be vulnerable in a power outage.

A large spray from a wave is shown in a coastal area, with a palm tree also shown
Waves crash against the shoreline at Higgs Beach in Key West, Fla., on Tuesday. (Rob O’Neal/The Key West Citizen/The Associated Press)

Many school districts along the Gulf Coast said they would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Several colleges and universities said they would close their campuses on Tuesday, including the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“They told us that our dorm building, especially, is prone to flooding,” said Erin Amiss, a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said the 2023 hurricane season would be far busier than initially forecast, partly because of extremely warm ocean temperatures. The season runs through Nov. 30, with August and September typically the peak.

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