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Floridians flee Gulf Coast as Hurricane Idalia expected to make landfall Wednesday | CBC News

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Idalia became a hurricane on Tuesday as it intensified on a path toward Florida’s Gulf Coast, with the National Hurricane Center warning of an increasing risk of life-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds in Florida in the next two days.

Hurricane Idalia was about 390 kilometres south-southwest of Tampa at 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 150 km/h, the hurricane centre said. Idalia was moving north at 24 km/h.

“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.

The storm’s centre will most likely hit a lightly populated area of the Gulf Coast known as the Big Bend before crossing the peninsula and drenching southern Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday, forecasters said.

“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 the passage of Storm Idalia 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.

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.

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

‘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.

WATCH | Idalia drenches Cuba en route to expected Florida path:

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. Western Florida was on guard and preparing for Idalia, which has strengthened while moving across water. (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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