The center of Hurricane Idalia has slammed Florida’s Big Bend at dangerous Category 3 strength – inflicting deadly storm surge and catastrophic winds not seen in that Gulf Coast area in 125 years. And its destruction is expected to keep unfolding far beyond the landfall zone.
Idalia’s core hit shore Wednesday morning near Keaton Beach, around where the panhandle meets the peninsula. As of 9 a.m. ET, it was whipping top sustained winds of 110 mph as it threatened inland Florida and the Georgia and South Carolina coasts with intense flooding, ferocious winds and tornadoes, the National Hurricane Center said.
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.
Even before landfall, the city looked “almost apocalyptic,” resident Michael Bobbitt said early Wednesday. 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.”
Do not try to “‘ride’ this one out,” police had told residents in the Big Bend city of Perry, warning storm surge higher than 15 feet is “not survivable if you are caught in it.” Storm surge accounts for about half of all hurricane-related deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
A rare extreme wind warning – issued in cases of life-threatening sustained winds of 115 mph or more – was issued for parts of the Big Bend region, including Dixie and Taylor counties: “Treat these imminent extreme winds as if a tornado was approaching and move immediately to the safe room in your shelter,” the National Weather Service office in Tallahassee warned. “Take action now to protect your life!”
A tornado watch is in place for nearly 12 million people across central and northern Florida and southeast Georgia until 3 p.m. Wednesday as conditions continue to deteriorate, with coastal streets and lots flooding in places including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers Beach as ocean water pushes ashore, rain pours down and winds whip.
And destruction is possible far behind Idalia’s forecast cone, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday morning. At least 11 tornado warnings already had been issued, with more possible – even in places “way outside the cone that you see on your TV screens,” he said.
Here are other developments around the state:
• 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.
• Power knocked out: About 230,000 homes, businesses and other power customers had no electricity as of 9 a.m. Wednesday, according to PowerOutage.com.
• Federal officials prepare to respond: President Joe Biden will address the government response to the hurricane Wednesday afternoon, a White House official said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has supplies and teams on standby, including urban search and rescue teams, to assist with the response as soon as the storm passes, the official said.
• 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.
• Rescuers on standby: At least eight urban search-and-rescue teams, 33 ambulance strike teams and 5,500 National Guard members are ready, and the Coast Guard is on standby, officials said Wednesday morning.
• 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 remain open for emergency care.
• Bridges close: DeSantis warned residents in the path of Hurricane Idalia that once winds reach 40 mph or more, bridges will not be “safe to traverse” and will be shut down. High winds led officials to close the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which connects St. Petersburg to Manatee County, Pinellas County Emergency Management announced Wednesday morning.
• Schools and universities close: 50 county school districts have issued closures, as did dozens of college and university systems across Florida.
• Thousands of inmates evacuated: Roughly 4,000 inmates were evacuated or relocated to facilities better equipped to handle the storm, according to the Florida Department of Corrections.
• Much of Florida under state of emergency: DeSantis has issued an emergency declaration to 49 of 67 Florida counties.
What’s coming after landfall
Damaging winds and heavy rain now will spread far inland into Florida, parts of Georgia and even the Carolinas. Idalia’s center is forecast to move near or along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina late Wednesday and Thursday, the hurricane center said.
“Idalia is likely to still be a hurricane while moving across southern Georgia, and possibly when it reaches the coast of Georgia or southern South Carolina late today,” the hurricane center said Wednesday morning.
North Carolina and Georgia have also declared states of emergency as they prepare for floods and hurricane force winds.