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Hurricane Idalia intensified early Wednesday into a dangerous Category 3 storm and is expected to strengthen further before a potentially catastrophic morning collision into Florida’s west coast – where numerous residents have been told to flee, schools are closed and the National Guard is preparing for rescues.
Idalia is expected to make landfall Wednesday morning as “an extremely dangerous Category 4” on Florida’s Big Bend coast, bringing once-in-a-lifetime levels of damaging winds and storm surge, according to the National Hurricane Center.
It could be the first major hurricane at Category 3 or stronger to hit the Big Bend region.
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Idalia was about 90 miles west southwest of Cedar Key, Florida, as of about 4 a.m., with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph that are projected to grow stronger as it approaches the state, the hurricane center said. That’s just shy of the 130 mph winds needed for a Category 4 – capable of widespread catastrophic damage.
Conditions were already deteriorating by early Wednesday, with coastal streets and lots turning into rivers in some areas, including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers Beach, as rising ocean water comes ashore, rain pours down and winds whip Florida’s west coast.
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As it moves onshore, Idalia’s core will bring destructive winds and life-threatening storm surge up to 16 feet above ground level – high enough to stack a wall of seawater halfway up the second floor of an average building – the hurricane center said.
“This has the makings of an unprecedented event for this part of the state,” the National Weather Service in Tallahassee said. “To put this system into the historical context, there are NO major hurricanes in the historical dataset going back to 1851 that have tracked into Apalachee Bay. None. Don’t mess around with this one.”
Much of the Big Bend area – the curved coastline that connects Florida’s Panhandle to the rest of the Florida Peninsula – is forecast to see storm surge of 12 to 16 feet – the hurricane center said.
“There is great potential for death and catastrophic devastation,” the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office, in the Big Bend region southeast of Tallahassee, said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned of “significant, significant impact” to the Big Bend region, saying first responders will not be able to reach people who stay in evacuation zones until after the storm passes.
While the majority of residents in Idalia’s direct path have heeded evacuation orders, DeSantis said, some have opted to stay behind. “You really got to go now,” DeSantis told Big Bend residents Tuesday evening. “Now’s the time.”
Police in Perry, a city in the Big Bend area, cautioned residents against trying to “‘ride’ this one out.”
Storm surge higher than 15 feet is “not survivable if you are caught in it,” Perry police said.
Storm surge, when rising waters move inland from the shoreline, accounts for nearly half of all hurricane-related fatalities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, and is the reason behind most storm evacuations.
Tampa, well south of the projected landfall area, was also bracing for Idalia’s wrath and seeing storm surge beginning to flood streets Tuesday.
Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw said he saw once dry streets become flooded within the span of half an hour Tuesday.
“I witnessed for myself people driving in the water,” Bercaw said at a storm briefing Tuesday. “Don’t be that person. Remember, turn around, don’t drown.”
Cedar Key, on the southern side of the Big Bend, could be cut off by the high storm surge, National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Jamie Rhome said.
“This storm is worse than we’ve ever seen. My family has been here for many generations, we haven’t seen a storm this bad, ever,” Mayor Heath Davis said Tuesday, warning that all emergency services will stop Tuesday evening as winds pick up.
On top of the threats of storm surge, powerful winds, heavy rain and flooding, a tornado watch also is in place for more than 7 million people across central and western Florida, including Tampa, until 6 a.m. ET Wednesday.
As the effects of Hurricane Idalia are already being felt up and down the Florida Gulf Coast, 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.
• 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.
• National Guard is deployed: Around 5,500 National Guard troops have been deployed, bracing to help with any search and rescue efforts after landfall.
• 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 will 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.
Florida won’t be the only state feeling Idalia’s impacts. After the storm makes landfall, damaging winds and heavy rain will spread far inland into Florida, parts of Georgia and even the Carolinas.
After hitting Florida, 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.