Idalia strengthens and is predicted to hit Florida as a Category 4 hurricane

Businesses and homes at Cedar Key ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia (Rebecca Blackwell, AP)
Businesses and homes at Cedar Key ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia (Rebecca Blackwell, AP) Businesses and homes at Cedar Key ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia (Rebecca Blackwell, AP)

Peoples living in vulnerable coastal areas in Florida were ordered to pack up and leave as Hurricane Idalia gained steam on Tuesday and threatened to unleash life-threatening storm surges and rainfall.

Idalia pummelled Cuba with heavy rains on Monday and Tuesday, leaving the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Rio underwater and many of its residents without power.

The storm had strengthened to a Category 2 system on Tuesday afternoon with winds strengthening to 110mph by the evening.

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

The hurricane was projected to come ashore early on Wednesday as a Category 4 system with sustained winds of at least 130mph in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula.

The result could be a big blow to a state still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian.

The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend.

On the island of Cedar Key, commissioner Sue Colson joined other city officials in packing up documents and electronics at City Hall.

She had a message for the almost 900 residents under mandatory orders to evacuate as more than a dozen state troopers went door to door warning people the storm surge could rise as high as 15 feet.

“One word: Leave,” Ms Colson said. “It’s not something to discuss.”

Governor Ron DeSantis repeated the warning at an afternoon news conference.

“You really got to go now. Now is the time,” said the governor, who earlier stressed residents did not necessarily need to leave the state, but should “get to higher ground in a safe structure”.

“You can ride the storm out there, then go back to your home,” he said.

Tolls were waived on highways out of the danger area, shelters were open and hotels prepared to take in evacuees.

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, a coastal community northwest of Tampa, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital out of concern that the system could bring a seven-foot storm surge.

After landing in the Big Bend region, Idalia is forecast to cross the Florida peninsula and drench southern Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday.

Both Georgia governor Brian Kemp and South Carolina governor Henry McMaster announced states of emergency, freeing up state resources and personnel, including hundreds of National Guard troops.

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

At 11pm on Tuesday, Idalia was about 125 miles west of Tampa, the National Hurricane Centre said. It was moving north at 18 mph.

In Cuba, Idalia left more than 60% of Pinar del Rio’s residents in the dark, state media reported.

“The priority is to reestablish power and communications and keep an eye on the agriculture: Harvest whatever can be harvested and prepare for more rainfall,” president Miguel Díaz-Canel said in a meeting with government officials on Tuesday.

More than 10,000 people had been evacuated to shelters or stayed with friends and relatives as up to 4 inches of rain fell. More than half of the province was without electricity.

Tropical Weather
Tropical Weather A Tybee Island resident helps his friend board up his house on the island ahead of Hurricane Idalia (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

State media did not report any deaths or major damage.

Idalia will be the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season, but it is only 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.

With a large stretch of Florida’s western coast at risk for storm surges and floods, evacuation notices were issued in 22 counties with mandatory orders for some people in eight of those counties.

Many of the notices were for low-lying and coastal areas and for people living in mobile and manufactured homes, recreational vehicles or boats, and for people who would be vulnerable in a power outage.