Hurricane Idalia made landfall over Florida’s Gulf Coast as a “catastrophic” Category 3 storm Wednesday at 7:45 a.m., leaving hundreds of thousands of residents without power, officials said. It has since been downgraded to a Category 1 storm.
Idalia produced storm surges that reached several feet in some areas and brought damaging winds that howled up to 130 miles per hour at one point, according to the National Hurricane Center. It also caused flooding that has completely encompassed Floridian roadways when it passed the Apalachee Bay and made landfall over Florida’s Big Bend region, where the peninsula merges into the Panhandle.
At least two people have died in vehicle accidents since the storm made landfall, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. In Pasco County, a 40-year-old male lost control of his Ford Ranger and collided into a tree after driving too fast for the weather conditions, while a 59-year-old male died in Alachua County after his Toyota Tacoma plunged into a ditch and crashed into a nearby tree line, officials said.
The storm has been impacting Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Dowling Park, Lake City, Cedar Key, Chiefland, Newberry, Cross City, Apalachicola, and Perry. Its impact will also be felt in Orlando, Spring Hill, Bradenton, Bartow, Ocala, Lake Placid, Tampa, Sarasota, and Fort Myers.
By 11 a.m. Wednesday, the storm was a Category 1, with sustained winds of 90 mph, and its impact was being felt in Georgia, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Authorities continue to urge caution as, despite the slight decline, the storm remains dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
Over 270,000 Florida residents and at least 60,000 Georgia residents were without power as of Wednesday morning, according to PowerOutage.us.
“As you’d imagine, the counties that have the highest percentage of power outages are the counties that were in the main pathway of the storm,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a midday press conference. “Counties like Dixie Levy, Taylor, Swanee, Madison, Jefferson and Columbia. Utility workers are actively working to restore power in all affected areas, and they started doing that as soon as it was safe to do so.”
Further outages are expected as the storm continues pummeling the state as Idalia continues its northeast path to Georgia, the Carolinas and then the Atlantic Ocean.
“So far right now, the biggest impacted area that we have following up on what the governor said is seems to be in Perry [County] right now,” said Kevin Guthrie, the executive director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We know we have a couple of businesses that have caught on fire, a few that have roofs knocked off of them, maybe potentially one collapse.”
“Madison County is another county that has been impacted. They have a lot of debris on the ground,” he added. “They have about 99% power outages in that particular county.”
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee had called Idalia “an unprecedented event” as it rapidly intensified over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and obtained Category 4 status within 24 hours. It downgraded slightly, officially becoming a high-end Category 3 storm when it made landfall, before downgrading again.
The NWS also said “no one” has witnessed a storm strengthen to such magnitude in such a short time.
DeSantis fully activated the Florida National Guard and its approximately 5,500 soldiers and airmen members for Hurricane Idalia response operations.
The mobilized units will “support humanitarian assistance, route clearance, search and rescue, traffic control, aviation, and security missions throughout the area of operations,” the National Guard said.
“The 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team is conducting immediate response operations with multi-purpose units in western coastal counties. We also have units providing reinforcement throughout central and northeast Florida, as well as providing support to the State Logistics Response Center (SLRC) and County Emergency Operation Centers (EOC),” its statement read.
Aircrews of the Florida Army National Guard’s Company C, 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment deployed from the Cecil Airport in Jacksonville while soldiers with the Florida Army National Guard’s Company A, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment came from Leesburg.
DeSantis also said the Florida Department of Transportation had 650 heavy vehicles currently in use and about 30,000 powerline personnel tasked with restoring power.
For the Big Bend region, this is the strongest hurricane in over 150 years.
No major hurricanes – those classified as Category 3 or higher – have made landfall through the Big Bend region since hurricane data was first recorded in 1851. Idalia is now the first.
“Idalia is expected to produce a swath of 4 to 8 inches of rainfall with isolated [totals of] up to 12 inches from the Florida Big Bend through central Georgia and South Carolina, and through eastern North Carolina into Thursday,” the National Hurricane Center said in a Wednesday morning advisory. “These rainfall amounts will lead to areas of flash, urban, and moderate river flooding, with considerable impacts.”
State and local officials are urging caution and have specifically instructed residents to get out of vehicles, which are easily swept away by intense wind gusts and water surging through the streets.
Steady winds also bring water from the Gulf onto Florida’s beaches and roads, drowning out transportation avenues and leaving vehicles stranded.
According to NOAA, water levels in Cedar Key surpassed 10 feet Wednesday morning, breaking the previous record of 5.99 feet. The previous record was set during Hurricane Hermine in September 2016.
Steve Gaskins, a sergeant at the Florida Highway Patrol, told FOX Weather Idalia was “a storm that is causing a lot of issues.”
The “biggest” problem for emergency response crews was the flooding, he said.
Gaskins also urged residents to remain home, but if they have to travel he instructed them not to drive over standing water and to avoid downed powerlines and downed trees.
FOX Weather aired a doorbell camera in Cedar Key that captured a Cadillac sedan, left vacate by its owner, pushed several feet by the storm as surrounding water rose for hours, eclipsing the vehicle’s bumper and tires before water likely washed it away.
State of emergency orders have already been declared in at least 50 continues.
Gainesville, which is home to the University of Florida, is in the storm’s path and the school has canceled classes at this time.
Also, the Tallahassee International Airport and the Tampa International Airport have had their operations impacted.