‘Nothing left’: Idalia leaves trail of devastation across southeast US

Residents and authorities assess damage after tropical storm brings flooding but is less disastrous than feared.

A woman sits amid destruction caused by Hurricane Idalia in Florida, US
Jewell Baggett, 51, sits on a bathtub amid the wreckage of the home built by her grandfather, where she grew up and three generations of her family lived, in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, August 30, 2023 [Cheney Orr/Reuters]

Tropical Storm Idalia has left a trail of flooding and devastation across the southeastern United States, where authorities and residents are assessing the damage and beginning cleanup efforts.

The storm descended on South and North Carolina on its way out to the Atlantic Ocean on Thursday, a day after making landfall on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Idalia crashed ashore on Wednesday morning as a powerful Category 3 hurricane at Keaton Beach in Florida’s northern Big Bend region, lashing the coast with sustained winds of up to 201 kilometres per hour (125 miles per hour) and torrential rains.

At one point, the storm left as many as 500,000 customers without power in Florida and other US states as it ripped down electricity poles and lines.

But Idalia was less catastrophic than feared, with property damage, loss of life and power disruptions paling in comparison to the last major hurricane that struck Florida nearly a year ago, Hurricane Ian.

The White House on Thursday approved an emergency declaration for South Carolina, allowing federal government assistance to flow to the state.

In Charleston, a surge from Idalia topped the seawall that protects the downtown, sending ankle-deep ocean water into the streets and neighbourhoods where horse-drawn carriages pass million-dollar homes and a famous open-air market.

Preliminary data showed the Wednesday evening high tide reached just greater than 2.8 metres (9.2 feet), more than 0.9 metres (three feet) above normal and the fifth-highest reading in Charleston Harbor since records were first kept in 1899.

Bands from Idalia also brought short-lived tornadoes. One flipped a car in suburban Goose Creek, South Carolina, causing minor injuries, authorities said. No major damage was reported.

In North Carolina, Governor Roy Cooper, who declared a statewide emergency earlier this week as Idalia approached, had warned residents in coastal and eastern inland counties to prepare for heavy rainfall and localised flooding and urged them to stay off roads covered by water.

“The cleanup in Florida … is only beginning as the Big Bend region took the brunt of this storm yesterday morning,” NBC News correspondent Wendy Woolfolk told Al Jazeera from Charleston on Thursday afternoon.

“At this point, they are cleaning up throughout this region. We have got at least 312,000 customers from Florida all the way to North Carolina without power.”

A man assesses the damage caused by Hurricane Idalia in Florida, US
Buddy Ellison, 39, surveys his now destroyed shrimping business after the arrival of Hurricane Idalia in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, August 30, 2023 [Cheney Orr/Reuters]

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Deanne Criswell, was in Florida on Thursday to assess the damage alongside Governor Ron DeSantis.

“The community is resilient and we are going to work hard to make sure people get what they need,” DeSantis said during a news conference.

Criswell said during the briefing that she would tour the area with the governor and that DeSantis and US President Joe Biden have remained in close contact. Biden is expected to visit Florida on Saturday.

The state’s Highway Patrol reported that two motorists had died in separate rain-related crashes early on Wednesday before Idalia made landfall. Another death from the storm was reported in Georgia where a man was killed while clearing debris, local news reported.

Jeff Jelletts, territorial disaster coordinator for The Salvation Army’s southern headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, told Al Jazeera that an Idalia-related storm surge has inundated houses and downed trees and power lines.

Jelletts said a massive response team is being deployed, but that generally, disaster relief agencies have been stretched thin by extreme weather. “Even before this hurricane, we had tornadoes, floods and wildfires,” he said.

“I think one of the things that we’re trying to do is build resilience so that the poorest among us do have some of those necessary preparedness tools to get through these events.”

‘Storms are intensifying’

Speaking to reporters from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, FEMA’s Criswell said the country has seen an increase in severe weather events, including storms that intensify more rapidly due to warmer water temperatures.

“These storms are intensifying so fast that our local emergency management officials have less time to warn and evacuate and get people to safety,” she said.

“This is something that we have to take into consideration as we build our preparedness plans, as our local communities build their preparedness plans and how they’re going to communicate and prepare their communities for the types of storms that they’re going to face in the future.”

Still, Idalia appeared to be far less destructive than first feared.

Hurricane Idalia unleashes fury on Florida
A fallen tree lies atop the Mayo Cafe and a truck in Mayo, Florida, after the passage of Hurricane Idalia, August 30, 2023 [Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo]

Its path took it away from the large urban regions of Florida, striking only glancing blows to Tampa Bay and other more populated areas while the fury of the storm was focused on the rural Big Bend section. Damage there was likely to be extensive.

At Horseshoe Beach in central Big Bend, Jewell Baggett picked through the wreckage and debris of her mother’s destroyed home, finding a few pictures and her mother’s pots and pans.

Her grandfather built the home decades ago and it had survived four previous storms, she said.

“And now it’s gone,” she said. “Nothing left. A few little trinkets here and there.”

As of midday Thursday, the centre of the storm was moving eastward off the North Carolina coast, about 135km (85 miles) southeast of Cape Lookout as it carried winds of 105 kilometres per hour (65 miles per hour).

Idalia was expected to curl eastward and out into the Atlantic on Thursday night.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies