Florida braces for Hurricane Idalia as storm builds over warm Gulf waters

Idalia is expected to pummel the state as a Category 3 storm, crossing from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

An aerial view of Cedar Key, a barrier island dotted with houses and businesses on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
The mayor of Cedar Key, Florida, estimates that 100 residents on the small barrier island have chosen to shelter in place as Hurricane Idalia approaches [Marco Bello/Reuters]

It is a quiet part of the Florida coast, known for sport fishing, clam farming and wooden houses on stilts, perched right on the water.

But the small island of Cedar Key, Florida, is among the coastal communities expected to face the brunt of Hurricane Idalia, which strengthened into a Category 2 storm on Tuesday afternoon.

Idalia is projected to make landfall in the United States during the early hours of Wednesday. Meteorologists predict it will strike as a Category 3 cyclone on the five-tier wind scale, passing the threshold for what is considered a “major” hurricane.

(Al Jazeera)

“This is a life threatening situation,” the National Hurricane Center warned in a bulletin Tuesday afternoon.

The centre predicted a storm surge up to 4.6 metres (15 feet) high along the stretch of coastline from the Aucilla River down to Yankeetown, an area that includes Cedar Key and quaint destinations like the scallop-harvesting town of Steinhatchee.

“That is a storm surge that — if you’re there while that hits — it’s going to be very difficult to survive that, so please take appropriate precautions,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told reporters from the state capital Tallahassee.

“This is crunch time right now. We’re going to get hit with a major hurricane,” he added.

A satellite view of Hurricane Idalia churning off the Florida coast.
Hurricane Idalia churning off the west coast of Florida as it prepares to make landfall overnight on Tuesday [NOAA/AP Photo]

A total of 28 counties have issued evacuation orders as Idalia approaches the “Big Bend” region of the state, a curve where the Florida peninsula connects to the mainland.

School districts across Florida have cancelled their classes as have 18 state colleges and six universities, including major institutions like the University of Florida in Gainesville and Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The storm is expected to barrel across the state, ploughing from the Gulf of Mexico across land to the Atlantic Ocean as it travels northeast towards Georgia and the Carolinas.

“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 on Wednesday,” the hurricane centre said.

Ocean temperatures around Florida have reached unprecedented levels in recent months, with the water’s surface becoming as hot as 38 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit) in July.

That, in turn, has allowed Idalia to intensify rapidly as heat spirals up from the water and moisture fills the air.

A dog sits in the bed of a pickup truck hauling plywood to board up houses.
A dog named Blue sits in a pick-up truck as its owner boards up windows in Cedar Key, Florida [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]

Parts of Florida are still recovering from another powerful storm, Hurricane Ian, which slammed the state as a Category 4 cyclone in 2022.

An estimated 150 people died as Ian tore through the west coast of Florida, leaving more than $112bn in damage — the costliest hurricane ever to ravage the state.

Idalia, meanwhile, is set to strike just north of where Ian did, in an area that has not experienced any major hurricane in recent history.

“Particularly in this part of the state, you’ve really got to go back to the late 1800s to find a storm of this magnitude that will enter where this one looks like it’s going to enter tomorrow,” DeSantis told reporters on Tuesday. “We don’t really have a historical analogue in anybody’s memory, so it’s likely to cause a lot of damage, and that’s just the reality.”

That lack of experience has local officials worried about complacency. Mayor Heath Davis of Cedar Key estimated that 100 residents planned to ride out the storm, out of a community that typically numbers about 800 people on the small barrier island.

“We’re here to beg our citizens to heed this warning. This storm is worse than we’ve ever seen,” Davis said at a Tuesday press conference. “My family has been here for many generations. We haven’t seen a storm this bad ever.”

City officials in Cedar Key said electricity and water will be cut to the island while the storm passes. With bridges scheduled to close in anticipation of the high winds, authorities also warned residents to take local evacuation orders seriously, lest they find themselves stuck without access to basic resources or first responders.

“If you have not evacuated, you need to do that right now,” Kevin Guthrie, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said. “You need to drop what you’re doing. You need to go to your room, pack up, pack your things and get to safety.”

Source: Al Jazeera