Hurricane Idalia barreled towards the west coast of Florida on Tuesday, triggering mass evacuation orders and flood alerts as authorities warned the storm could strengthen to “extremely dangerous” levels before landfall.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Idalia, a Category 1 storm with winds of 85 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour), was churning off Florida’s southwest shore, bringing tropical storm conditions to western Cuba and flooding in Havana.
Warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico are expected to turbocharge Idalia into an “extremely dangerous major hurricane before landfall on Wednesday,” the NHC said, warning of “storm surge inundation of 10 to 15 feet (3-5 meters)” in coastal areas.
“Very few people can survive being in the path of a major storm surge, and this storm will be deadly if we don’t get out of harm’s way and take it seriously,” said Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Deanne Criswell.
Major hurricanes are Category 3 or higher on the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds above 110 miles per hour that the NHC says could cause “devastating damage.”
In the small coastal town of Steinhatchee, Robert Bryant was making final preparations to evacuate inland with his two cats and a dog.
“We are out on the water, so we are going to be the worst ones to get hit,” said the 18-year-old student, whose home built on stilts lies close to the mouth of a river.
“Hopefully, it just blows over and we have a bit of wind… but you prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he told AFP.
– Leave ‘now’ –
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged those in the evacuation areas along the Gulf coast to go “now.”
“You don’t have to go hundreds of miles,” he told a news conference, urging coastal residents in the 23 counties under evacuation orders so far to get to shelters or hotels that were out of the danger zones.
Almost 150 people were killed last year when Hurricane Ian slammed Florida’s west coast as a devastating Category 4 storm, bringing storm surges and heavy winds that downed bridges, swept away buildings, and caused more than $100 billion worth of damage.
Idalia is expected to make landfall farther north along the coast, in the so-called Big Bend area — a vast marshy region which, unlike most other coastal areas around Florida, does not have barrier islands.
“We’ve not really had a hurricane strike this area for a long, long time,” DeSantis told reporters.
“You are going to see a lot of debris — there’s a lot of trees along that track,” added the governor, who has suspended his presidential campaign to handle the crisis.
The NHC said in its latest advisory that forecasts were increasingly confident Idalia would “reach the coast of Florida adjacent to Apalachee Bay Wednesday morning.”
US President Joe Biden spoke with DeSantis on Monday and approved an emergency declaration for the state, which unblocks federal funds and resources. The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also deployed staff.
Tampa International Airport has closed ahead of Idalia’s arrival, while flights were disrupted along the US East Coast as another hurricane, Franklin, churns in the Atlantic.
– ‘Marine heat wave’ –
Georgia and South Carolina are also under storm watches as Idalia is expected to cross northeast over Florida before exiting into the Atlantic.
All three states could see flooding on Wednesday or Thursday, the NHC said.
On Monday, thousands of Cubans rushed out of the storm’s way as the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa as well as Isla de la Juventud, an island, were placed under hurricane warnings.
Streets were flooded in Havana and some of the island nation’s western provinces as Idalia brushed past.
After clipping Cuba, the storm moved out over the Gulf, which scientists say is experiencing a “marine heat wave” — energizing Idalia’s winds as it races towards Florida.
Idalia also dumped rain on Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan, home to Cancun and other coastal tourist resorts.
Scientists have warned that storms are becoming more powerful as the world gets warmer due to climate change.