Reporters wade through flood waters as it inundates the downtown area after Hurricane Idalia passed offshore on August 30, 2023 in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Image Credit: AFP

STEINHATCHEE, Florida: Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida as an “extremely dangerous” Category 3 storm on Wednesday after millions of residents evacuated or hunkered down in homes and shelters to await the arrival of a life-threatening storm surge.

Drawing strength from the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, Idalia was forecast to unleash destructive winds and torrential downpours that will cause coastal flooding up to 16 feet (4.88 m) deep.

“Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point. This thing’s powerful,” Governor Ron DeSantis said during a morning news briefing in Tallahassee that was interrupted for a few seconds by a power cut.

The NHC said Idalia made landfall at 7:45am EDT at Keaton Beach in Florida’s Big Bend region, where the state’s northern Gulf Coast panhandle curves into the western side of the Florida Peninsula, roughly bounded by the inland cities of Gainesville and Tallahassee, the state capital.

Overnight, Idalia attained “an extremely dangerous Category 4 intensity” on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale on its way to landfall in Florida Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said.

How hurricane categories forecast the scale of destruction
Storms of this magnitude feature sustained wind speeds of 74-95 mph (119-153 kph). Considered “very dangerous,” winds are capable of defacing home exteriors, snapping tree branches and causing days-long power outages. People, livestock and pets face some risk of injury or death.
These storms have sustained winds of 96-110 mph (154-177 kph). Determined to be “extremely dangerous,” winds can bring major damage to home exteriors, uproot trees that block roads and cause near-total power blackouts that could last weeks. A substantial risk of death is present.
These major storms have sustained winds of 111-129 mph (178-208 kph). The winds are expected to cause “devastating damage” to buildings, including blown roofs, and uproot trees. In addition to lost power, water outages could occur from days to weeks after the storm passes. There is a high risk of death.
Category 4 storms carry sustained winds of 130-156 mph (209-251 kph). Winds can cause “catastrophic damage” to homes, including destroyed roofs and exterior walls. In addition to fallen trees, downed power poles have potential to leave areas without power and uninhabitable for months. The risk of death or injury is considered very high.
The highest designation given to hurricanes with sustained winds exceeding 157 mph (252 kph). Winds cause “catastrophic damage” that leave many homes destroyed and residential areas isolated due to downed trees and power poles. Given the extensive damage and loss of power, areas could be left unlivable for months. Risk of injury and death, even for those indoors, is very high.
Hurricanes need two main ingredients — warm ocean water and moist, humid air. When warm seawater evaporates, its heat energy is transferred to the atmosphere. This fuels the storm’s winds to strengthen. Without it, hurricanes can’t intensify and will fizzle out.
While technically the same phenomenon, these big storms get different names depending on where and how they were formed.
Storms that form over the Atlantic Ocean or central and eastern North Pacific are called “hurricanes” when their wind speeds reach at least 74 miles per hour (119 kilometers per hour). Up to that point, they’re known as “tropical storms.”
In East Asia, violent, swirling storms that form over the Northwest Pacific are called “typhoons”, while “cyclones” emerge over the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.
Yes, climate change is making hurricanes wetter, windier and altogether more intense. There is also evidence that it is causing storms to travel more slowly, meaning they can dump more water in one place.
If it weren’t for the oceans, the planet would be much hotter due to climate change. But in the last 40 years, the ocean has absorbed about 90 per cent of the warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. Much of this ocean heat is contained near the water’s surface. This additional heat can fuel a storm’s intensity and power stronger winds.
- Reuters

But as of 7am EDT (0900 GMT) it weakened slightly, slipping into Category 3, with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (201 km). Any storm reaching Category 3 or higher is considered a major hurricane.

Most of Florida’s 21 million residents, and many in the adjacent states of Georgia and South Carolina, were under hurricane warnings and other storm-related advisories. State emergency declarations were issued in all three.

“They’re expecting some fatalities, so I don’t want to be one of them,” Rene Hoffman, 62, said as she prepared to leave her home in Steinhatchee, Florida. She owns a food stand that she secured to her husband’s pickup truck to keep it from washing or blowing away.

Most dangerous feature

Florida’s Gulf Coast, southeastern Georgia and eastern parts of North and South Carolina could face 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) of rain through Thursday, with isolated areas seeing as much as a foot of rain (30 cm), the hurricane center warned.

Officials said the storm’s most dangerous feature would be a powerful surge of wind-driven surf that is expected to flood barrier islands and other low-lying areas along the coast.

Vehicles sit in a flooded street caused by Hurricane Idalia passing offshore on August 30, 2023 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hurricane Idalia is hitting the Big Bend area of Florida. Image Credit: AFP

Surge warnings were posted for hundreds of miles of shoreline, from Sarasota to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay. In some areas, the surge of water could rise 12 to 16 feet (3.7 to 4.9 m), the NHC said.

“If you end up with a storm surge that even approaches 16 feet, the chances of surviving that are not great,” DeSantis said. “You would need to be in a three-story building because it is going to rise very, very high.” The NHC said Idalia’s center would most likely cross Florida’s shoreline somewhere in the Big Bend region, where the state’s northern Gulf Coast panhandle curves into the western side of the Florida Peninsula, roughly bounded by the inland cities of Gainesville and Tallahassee, the state capital.

Sparsely populated compared with the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to the south, the Big Bend features a marshy coast, threaded with freshwater springs and rivers, and a cluster of small offshore islands forming Cedar Key, a historic fishing village demolished in 1896 by a hurricane’s storm surge.

At the White House on Tuesday, US President Biden said he and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election, were “in constant contact” about storm preparations.

Biden was set to speak about the government’s hurricane response efforts later on Wednesday.

More than 40 school districts in Florida cancel classes

Idalia-related disruptions extended to Florida’s Atlantic coast at Cape Canaveral, where the Tuesday launch of a rocket carrying a US Space Force intelligence satellite was delayed indefinitely.

Idalia grew from a tropical storm into a hurricane early on Tuesday, a day after passing west of Cuba, where it damaged homes, knocked out power, flooded villages and prompted mass evacuations.

It will be the fourth major hurricane to strike Florida in the past seven years, following Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018 and Ian, which peaked at Category 5, last September.

More than 40 school districts in Florida canceled classes, DeSantis said, and Tampa International Airport suspended commercial operations on Tuesday.

About 5,500 National Guard members were mobilized, while 30,000 to 40,000 electricity workers were on standby. The state has set aside 1.1 million gallons of gasoline to address interruptions to fuel supplies, the governor said.

In Sarasota - a city hard-hit by Ian last year - Milton Bontrager, 40, who runs a charter fishing service near Tampa, said his home was boarded up and stocked with food, water and a generator, and his boats were secure.

“I don’t panic, I prepare,” he said on Tuesday.