Storm surges forecast for Florida Gulf Coast as Idalia strengthens to hurricane

Idalia became a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday as it intensified on a path towards Florida’s Gulf Coast (Chris O’Meara/AP)
Idalia became a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday as it intensified on a path towards Florida’s Gulf Coast (Chris O’Meara/AP) Idalia became a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday as it intensified on a path towards Florida’s Gulf Coast (Chris O’Meara/AP)

Idalia became a Category 3 hurricane on Tuesday as it intensified on a path towards Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The National Hurricane Centre warned of an increasing risk of life-threatening storm surges and dangerous hurricane-force winds in the state over the next two days.

Florida residents had begun stocking up on sandbags and evacuating homes in low-lying areas along the coast on Monday.

As the state prepared, Idalia thrashed Cuba with heavy rain, especially in the westernmost part of the island, where the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Rio is still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Ian almost a year ago.

Authorities in the province issued a state of alert, and residents were evacuated to friends’ and relatives’ homes as authorities monitored the Cuyaguateje river for possible flooding.

As much as 4in (10cm) of rain fell in Cuba on Sunday, meteorological stations reported.

Idalia is expected to start affecting Florida with hurricane-force winds as soon as late on Tuesday and arrive on the coast by Wednesday.

It is the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season and a potentially big blow to the state, which is also dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian.

Idalia is also the latest in a summer of natural disasters, including wildfires in Hawaii, Canada and Greece; the first tropical storm to hit California in 84 years; and devastating flooding in Vermont.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 46 counties, a broad swathe that stretches across the northern half of the state from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast.

Tropical Weather
Tropical Weather Members of the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department help residents stock up on sandbags (Chris O’Meara/PA)

The state has mobilised 1,100 National Guard members, who have 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft at their disposal for rescue and recovery efforts.

Tampa International Airport and St Pete-Clearwater International Airport said they would close on Tuesday, and the Sunrail commuter rail service in Orlando was being suspended.

Mr DeSantis warned of a “major impact” to the state.

“The property … we can rebuild someone’s home,” he said during a news conference on Monday. “You can’t unring the bell, though, if somebody stays in harm’s way and does battle with Mother Nature.”

The governor said the Florida Department of Transportation would waive tolls on highways in the Tampa area and the Big Bend starting at 4am on Tuesday to help ease any burden on people in the path of the storm.

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 are 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.

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Tropical Weather Motorists queue to collect sandbags in Tampa, Florida, ahead of Hurrican Idalia’s arrival (Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times/AP)

Pasco and Levy counties, located north of Tampa, both ordered mandatory evacuations for some residents.

In Levy County, officials said residents of Cedar Key must be off the island by Tuesday evening because storm surges will make bridges impassable.

“Once the storm surge comes in, help may not be available to reach you,” the county said in a public advisory.

The National Hurricane Centre in Miami issued a hurricane warning on Monday from Longboat Key in the Sarasota area to the Holocene River, up past Tampa Bay.

Many school districts along the Gulf Coast said they would be closed on 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.

MacDill Air Force Base, located in Tampa Bay, is preparing to evacuate several aircraft and began a mandatory evacuation Monday morning for personnel who live in local counties, the air force said in a statement.

As Gulf Coast residents packed up their cars or got out generators in case of power cuts, state officials warned of potential fuel contamination at dozens of petrol stations.

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Florida-Gas Contamination Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned of a ‘major impact’ to the state (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

President Joe Biden spoke to Mr DeSantis on Monday morning, telling the Florida governor that he has approved an emergency declaration for the state, the White House said in a news release. Mr DeSantis is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

South-west Florida is still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Ian, which was responsible for almost 150 deaths. The Category 5 hurricane damaged 52,000 structures, nearly 20,000 of which were destroyed or severely damaged.

At 5am EDT on Tuesday, Hurricane Idalia was about 370 miles (600m) south-southwest of Tampa, with maximum sustained winds of 168mph (270kph), the hurricane centre said. It was moving north at 14mph (22kph).

On Tuesday, it was expected to turn north-east at a faster pace, reaching Florida’s western coast as a dangerous major hurricane on Wednesday.

After moving across Florida, Idalia is forecast to blow through Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

So far this year, the US East Coast has been spared from cyclones. But in the West earlier this month, Tropical Storm Hilary caused widespread flooding, mudslides and road closures in Mexico, California, Nevada and points north.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said the 2023 hurricane season will be far busier than initially forecast, partly because of extremely warm ocean temperatures.

The season runs until November 30, with August and September typically the peak.