CEDAR KEY, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s west coast as a catastrophic Category 3 storm on Wednesday and unleashed life-threatening storm surges and rainfall across an area that has never before received such pummeling.
More than 230,000 customers were without electricity as trees snapped by strong winds brought down power lines and rushing water covered streets. Along the coast, some homes were submerged to near their rooftops and structures crumpled. As the eye moved inland, destructive winds shredded signs and sent sheet metal flying.
“We have multiple trees down, debris in the roads, do not come,” posted the fire and rescue department in Cedar Key, where a tide gauge measured the storm surge at 6.8 feet (2 meters), submerging most of hte downtown. “We have propane tanks blowing up all over the island.”
Idalia came ashore in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula. It made landfall near Keaton Beach at 7:45 a.m. as a high-end Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph).
More than an hour later, it remained a Category 2 storm with top winds of 110 mph (175 mph), and it was expected to remain a hurricane while crossing Florida east of Tallhassee, toward Valdosta, Georgia. Forecasters said it would punish the Carolinas overnight as a tropical storm. Some models predicted Idalia could circle southward toward land again after that, but the National Hurricane Center forecast it to move deeper into the Atlantic this weekend.
Astounded by the flooding that turned Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard into a river, Bill Hall watched a paddleboarder ride along the major thoroughfare.
“This is actually unbelievable,” Hall said. “I haven’t seen anything like this in years.”
In Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, the power went out well before the center of the storm arrived.
Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey urged everyone to shelter in place — it was too late to risk going outside. Florida residents living in vulnerable coastal areas had been ordered to pack up and leave as Idalia gained strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “This thing’s powerful. If you’re inside, just hunker down until it gets past you.”
Storm surge could rise as high as 16 feet (4.9 meters) in some places. Some counties implemented curfews to keep residents off roads.
“For those who have chosen to remain on the beaches despite the mandatory evacuation order, please restrict your water and toilet usage,” the city of Clearwater posted. “Due to flooding, the city’s lift stations and stormwater system are under strain.”
Diane Flowers was sound asleep at 1 a.m. Wednesday in her Wakulla County home, but her husband was up watching the weather on TV, and got a text from their son when the storm was upgraded to a Category 4. He’s a firefighter/EMT in Franklin County, which is also along the Gulf Coast.
“He said, ‘You guys need to leave,’” Flowers said. “And he’s not one for overreacting, so when he told us to leave, we just packed our stuff, got in our car and got going.”
They quickly packed a few clothes, medicine, dog food for their two border collies, a computer, important documents and a bag of Cheetos. Motels were packed all the way into Alabama, where they ended up finding a room in Dothan.
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. The state, still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian, feared disastrous results.
But not everyone heeded the warnings.
Andy Bair, owner of the Island Hotel on Cedar Key, 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 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.”
Idalia had grown into a Category 2 system on Tuesday afternoon and became a Category 3 just hours earlier Wednesday before strengthening to a Category 4 and then weakening slightly to a high-end Category 3.
Hurricanes are measured on a five category scale, with a Category 5 being the strongest. A Category 3 storm is the first on the scale considered a major hurricane and the National Hurricane Center says a Category 4 storm brings “catastrophic damage.”
Tolls were waived on highways out of the danger area and shelters were opened. More than 30,000 utility workers were gathering to make repairs as quickly as possible in the hurricane’s wake. About 5,500 National Guard troops were activated.
In Tarpon Springs, on the coast northwest of Tampa, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital after warnings of a potential 7-foot (2.1-meter) storm surge there.
Both Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced states of emergency, freeing up state resources and personnel, including hundreds of National Guard troops.
“We’ll be prepared to the best of our abilities,” said Russell Guess, who was topping off the gas tank on his truck in Valdosta, Georgia. His co-workers at Cunningham Tree Service were doing the same. “There will be trees on people’s house, trees across power lines.”
Asked about the hurricane Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he had spoken to DeSantis and “provided him with everything that he possibly needs.”
Ian was responsible last year for almost 150 deaths. That Category 5 hurricane damaged 52,000 structures, nearly 20,000 of which were destroyed or severely damaged.
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.