Thousands of coastal-dwelling Floridians were racing inland on Tuesday as the state braces for a direct hit from Hurricane Idalia.
Idalia strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane on Tuesday afternoon with 100mph winds and is expected to further intensify before making landfall along the western coast of Florida on Wednesday morning.
A large, intense outer band was sending squalls over southwestern parts of the state and Florida Keys, the National Weather Service (NWS) reported.
The storm was 240 miles southwest of Tampa by late Tuesday and tracking to come ashore in the Big Bend area on the Gulf coast on Wednesday morning.
“Life-threatening” and catastrophic storm surge inundations of 10ft-15ft are expected along with destructive waves between Aucilla River and Yankeetown. Tampa, the state’s third latest city, could see up to 7ft of water.
“Hurricane Idalia will likely be an unprecedented event for many locations in the Florida Big Bend. Looking back through recorded history, NO major hurricanes have ever moved through the Apalachee Bay. When you try to compare this storm to others, DON’T. No one has seen this,” NWS Tallahassee office warned.
Evacuation notices have been issued in at least 21 counties in western and central Florida with mandatory orders in places. Some 46 Florida counties are under a state of emergency.
“This storm will be deadly if [Floridians] don’t get out of harm’s way,” Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said during a White House briefing on Tuesday.
Tolls were being waived on Florida highways to allow residents to quickly evacuate and at least 19 shelters had been opened across the state.
Gas was running low in parts of the state, according to GasBuddy, a social media account which tracks fuel. The most impacted area was Gainesville (4.7 per cent) while 4 per cent of Fort Myers and Naples stations were without gas. Tampa and St Petersburg followed with 2.6 per cent and then Orlando (0.5 per cent).
More than 30,000 utility workers were gathering to make repairs to the expected downed power lines, supported by the Army Corps of Engineers. Officials warned that those in the path of the storm should prepare for power outages and make sure cellphones, devices and batteries were charged.
Hurricane #Idalia will likely be an unprecedented event for many locations in the Florida Big Bend. Looking back through recorded history, NO major hurricanes have ever moved through the Apalachee Bay. When you try to compare this storm to others, DON'T. No one has seen this. pic.twitter.com/m9X8dcarc5
— NWS Tallahassee (@NWSTallahassee) August 29, 2023
Tampa General Hospital, the city’s only Level 1 trauma centre located on an island in Hillsborough Bay, was being surrounded by “Aquafences” on Tuesday in attempts to keep out predicted storm surge. In coastal Tarpon Springs, a community northwest of Tampa, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital out of concerns of high water levels.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on Tuesday that supplies of food, bottled water and tarps were on standby to move into affected areas and thousands of troops with the Florida National Guard had been activated.
He urged Floridians to heed the warnings, noting that even travelling a short distance could be life-saving.
“You do not have to leave the state. You don’t have to drive hundreds of miles,” he said.
“You have to get to higher ground in a safe structure. You can ride the storm out there, then go back to your home.”
President Joe Biden approved a federal emergency declaration for Florida on Monday. “Florida has my full support as they prepare for Idalia and its aftermath,” he wrote on X, formely known as Twitter.
Hundreds of flights had been cancelled at Tampa International Airport while Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando said that it was operating under normal conditions but “closely monitoring” the path of the storm.
Idalia may be the first major storm to hit Florida this hurricane season but it joins a long list of disasters in the United States and globally which are being amplified by the climate crisis. Ocean temperatures have reached unprecedented highs this summer including in the Gulf of Mexico which scientists say could supercharge Idalia with stronger winds and more moisture as it comes ashore.
Idalia has already deluged western Cuba, particularly the province of Pinar del Rio which is still recovering from Hurricane Ian last year. More than 10,000 people evacuated as up to four inches (10cm) of rain fell, leaving half the province without power.