The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Idalia gains steam, expected to hit Gulf Coast as Category 4 hurricane

Volunteers place hurricane shutters at the Cedar Key Fire Station ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Idalia, in Cedar Key, Fla., on Aug. 29. (Marco Bello/Reuters)
10 min

CEDAR KEY, Fla. — Rapidly intensifying Hurricane Idalia barreled across the Gulf of Mexico toward its Wednesday collision with Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, where it threatened a catastrophic storm surge, tornadoes and flooding across a wide swath of Florida and other states.

The National Hurricane Center said late Tuesday that Idalia intensified as it moved across the warm waters near Florida’s upper west coast, with winds of 110 mph. Its forecasters said the hurricane would make landfall as a Category 4 storm.

As Idalia spun and gathered strength, Floridians nailed plywood over their windows, stocked up on supplies or evacuated to higher ground. Officials said 40 shelters — many of them special needs and pet-friendly — had opened or were scheduled to open throughout the state.

A troubling proportion of Floridians, however, said they planned to try to ride out the storm. The last major hurricane to hit Florida, Hurricane Ian in 2022, killed 144 people, many of whom did not evacuate and died from drowning after being overtaken by surging water.

Hurricane Idalia’s storm surge — in which wind and tidal-driven waters rise high above normally dry land — could drive inundations of 10 to 15 feet in Florida’s Big Bend area, the hurricane center said Tuesday. Lesser but still eye-opening surges of up to six feet were predicted further south in the heavily populated Tampa Bay area.

Storm surge from Hurricane Idalia had already begun by midafternoon Tuesday as far away as Fort Myers, south of Tampa, with roads already becoming flooded with swirling water well before the hurricane reached the coast, and hundreds of miles from its center. The water could wash away or severely flood buildings, near-shore escape routes and secondary roads, forecasters warned.

Authorities had issued evacuation orders for 23 Florida counties — impacting more than 5 million people — and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) issued emergency declarations in 49 counties by Tuesday.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, DeSantis urged Floridians to take the precautions necessary and evacuate to safety while they still could.

“Being safe is the appropriate thing, and erring on the side of caution is the appropriate thing,” DeSantis said. “This is a significant event.”

Tampa International Airport shut down early Tuesday morning to prepare for the arrival of the hurricane, giving the facility time to secure jet bridges, aircraft and other equipment and triggering at least 650 flight cancellations, officials said.

The airport, which is close to Tampa Bay, said it expects to be closed until Thursday morning. Airlines canceled almost 400 flights in and out of the airport Tuesday and another 250 for Wednesday, according to tracking service FlightAware. Nearby St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport also planned to close until at least Wednesday, as did Tallahassee International Airport, authorities said.

Florida officials have prepositioned thousands of gallons of fuel and Starlink internet dishes and mobilized 5,500 National Guard troops to serve in the aftermath of the storm.

President Biden spoke with DeSantis on Monday and approved an emergency declaration for the state, according to the White House. Biden told DeSantis that “Florida will have his full support as they prepare for Idalia and its aftermath,” the White House said.

Idalia is expected to spawn several tornadoes in northwestern Florida and the Interstate 95 corridor of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia between Wednesday and Thursday, compounding the ordeal of those already dealing with storm impacts. Hurricane-force winds are expected to extend up to 15 miles from the center of Idalia, which is forecast to travel from Florida on Wednesday toward the coastline of the Carolinas on Thursday, the center said. Tropical storm-strength winds will extend up to 160 miles from Idalia’s center, it added.

Other hazards include the risk of flash and urban flooding across parts of Florida’s west coast and southern Georgia into Wednesday, with the areas east of the Carolinas affected Wednesday into Thursday.

DeSantis and other officials said that the storm was currently tracking toward a landfall in the Big Bend area of Florida, into an area that has not had a major hurricane for generations, raising concerns that residents might not take the risk seriously. The zone where Florida’s peninsula and panhandle meet, at Apalachee Bay, appeared Tuesday to be drawing the advancing hurricane in like a magnet.

“To put this storm into historical context, there are no major hurricanes in the historical data set going back to 1851 that have tracked into Apalachee Bay,” the National Weather Service said in an advisory. “None. Don’t mess around with this.”

Idalia is expected to drop a widespread 4 to 8 inches of rain close to where it makes landfall, but flooding from its torrential rain will spread well inland as it sweeps northeastward. Isolated areas could see up to a foot of rain.

W. Craig Fugate, who was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama and served as Florida emergency management director under Gov. Jeb Bush (R), urged people to take storm surges seriously, warning a surge can lead to “death by drowning and blunt trauma.”

“If you are still wondering what they mean by life-threatening storm surge — it means death by drowning and blunt trauma as cars and boats crash into your home,” Fugate said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Skip to end of carousel
The forecast cone of Hurricane Idalia as predicted by the National Hurricane Center. (NOAA/NHC)
End of carousel

The coastal Big Bend area, less populous than Tampa on the peninsula’s west coast or Miami on the east, features pine forests that tower over three-story houses, oaks dripping with Spanish moss mixed into the palms, cattle farms and pecan stands next to seafood markets.

At the crossroads in the tiny coastal town of Steinhatchee, population 580, Dustin Bass was busy on Tuesday boarding up the businesses of friends who were out of state — the ice cream shop, kayak rental and a real estate office.

Bass, 53, a carpenter who lives on the Steinhatchee River, said he has weathered several storms during his 16 years in town, most recently the more minor storm Hurricane Hermine in 2016. “But that was just a Category 1,” he said.

“I’m not staying for this one,” he said.

Bass said he planned to evacuate to his mother’s house inland in Lake City. But he knew several neighbors who refused to follow the mandatory evacuation order.

“I’ve had some people say they’re staying and I tell them to leave; good luck if they do decide to stay. These storms are not a joke. You get up to 120 mph winds — that’s cooking,” he said. “Most of the people are leaving. Some of the people staying, they haven’t been through a hurricane. I’ve told them they’re being naive.

“It’s sad knowing what’s coming,” he said. “It could take out the town.”

Among the neighbors intent on staying was Mitch Mitchell, 66, who runs a mortgage and finance company and owns one of the local marinas.

On Tuesday, he and his wife Carolyn, 65, were rushing around the house, preparing for the storm with help from friends and neighbors. She was intent on leaving; he was not.

“I’m walking around thinking, ‘What should I take with me?’” said Carolyn Mitchell, clutching a photo album.

She was torn, unsure what to take and whether to leave her husband, who she has known since eighth grade. The day before, her daily Bible reading came from the Book of Job.

“The Lord says don’t store up treasures on earth,” she said.

She stood on the wraparound deck of the home that they built nearly 40 years ago and contemplated the river.

“I love my spot. I would like to have a home out of the flood zone, but this is my spot,” she said. “It’s just a choice you’ve got to make.”

Her husband insisted he was staying, evacuation order or not.

“I ain’t leaving,” Mitchell said as his wife’s phone buzzed with a hurricane alert from surrounding Taylor County.

Mitch Mitchell said he didn’t want to evacuate and become trapped away from their properties, unable to return to check on them.

“What’s the tide doing?” he said and went to the window to check. It was still unusually high. But he still planned to stay.

By midday Tuesday, Cedar Key, an island community that sits about three miles out into the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s west coast, was deserted before a 4 p.m. evacuation order deadline. Many in the community of 897, where primary industries are tourism and growing clams and oysters, said they worried about what the place would look like Wednesday, since they were sitting in the projected path of the storm.

Chaplain Phil Prescott held a prayer service for parishioners of Christ Church Episcopal of Cedar Key on Tuesday morning, alerting residents in the small town the way his predecessors did when the church was founded in 1868 — he rang the church bell, enough times for people to hear and gather.

“There’s quite a bit of concern,” said Prescott, who is also the chaplain of the Cedar Key police and fire departments. “I told them that I’ve been through many hurricanes, my first one was in 1963. But this one is entirely different. We are such a community that when one of us suffers, we all suffer. And this one has the potential of being devastating. No one’s taking it lightly.”

Further south in Clearwater, hotels along Clearwater Beach were urging guests to evacuate. But on Tuesday morning, people waded into the sea anyway, trying to suppress their hurricane anxiety for at least a few hours.

One was Elizabeth Crncevic, a 42-year-old sonographer from Des Moines who booked a holiday there last spring.

“We wanted to see the beach before it got annihilated,” said Crncevic, who stood in the water with her husband and his parents.

The tide lapping at their ankles felt almost like bath water — a warm temperature that officials say is expected to intensify the storm’s power.

In Clearwater, Scott Gomes was trying to protect his mobile home as best he could, because he said he did not have money for gas to leave.

The 54-year-old former hospital valet — now out of work since losing his right leg below the knee to diabetes complications — lifted the stone bear statue from his garden and carried it inside. He tied down the chairs below his carport. He found a broom — “to beat the water away,” he said — in case storm surge streamed through his front door.

He crossed his fingers that, once again, his patch of this evacuation zone would be spared. He’d hunkered down here last year during Hurricane Ian, too, although that hit the coast well to the south.

“I’m going to work until it gets bad,” he said, breaking a sweat outside his home, “then I’m going to drink Miller Lite.”

Gowen reported from Lawrence, Kan. Kelsey Ables in Seoul, and Matthew Cappucci, Jason Samenow, Ian Duncan and Dino Grandoni in Washington contributed to this report.