Tropical Storm Idalia was expected to strengthen into a major hurricane on Monday as it crawled toward Florida’s Gulf Coast as officials issued evacuation orders and urged residents to make preparations ahead of an expected Wednesday morning landfall.
Idalia was churning about 80 miles off Western Cuba as it barreled north at 8 mph, carrying maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (105 kph), the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory on Monday.
The storm’s growing intensity and its current northerly track put some 14 million Floridians under hurricane and tropical storm warnings.
“Buckle up for this one,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said during a news conference on Monday afternoon, adding that he spoke to President Joe Biden and FEMA Director Deanne Criswell.
“Do what you got to do. You still have time today. You have time for most of tomorrow,” he added, urging Floridians to prepare for the potentially dangerous conditions.
Idalia will reach a Category 3 strength on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale when it makes landfall in northern Florida’s Big Bend area, where the panhandle transitions into the peninsula, the hurricane center forecast.
Shannon Hartsfield, who runs a fishing boat in Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County on the state’s panhandle, heeded the warnings, even though he lives west of where landfall is expected.
Hartsfield and many of his fellow fishers have pulled up almost all of their boats from the bay and moved them to high ground. Other fishermen who ran out of time and left their crab traps behind must now wait until after the storm to assess the damage.
“It could jog a little west and come straight at us,” Hartsfield said. “It’s not in the Gulf yet, so we won’t know for sure until tomorrow. Hopefully we won’t catch the worst of it.”
Some 350 miles to the south, Manatee County was one of a handful of counties to issue mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders on Monday, telling residents to seek higher ground or head out of the storm’s expected track.
By Tuesday, Florida’s Gulf Coast, southeast Georgia and the eastern North and South Carolina should experience torrential rains of 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm), with the possibility of scattered flash and urban flooding. Along with the heavy rain, winds of more than 110 miles per hour could result in life-threatening storm surge, the hurricane center warned.
SCHOOLS CANCEL CLASSES
Ahead of the storm, school districts across the region announced they would cancel classes starting on Monday afternoon. Tampa International Airport said in a statement that it was suspending commercial operations beginning at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. It will reopen after it can assess any damage.
Like many beachfront communities along the coast, the city of Bradenton opened sandbag stations on Monday and urged its 55,000 residents to stay vigilant.
“Let’s be prepared – secure items that could become airborne, gas up your car, have cash and bottled water on hand,” it said in a post on the social media platform X.
DeSantis issued a state of emergency for 46 Florida counties covering most of the northern part of the state. Some 5,500 members of the National Guard were mobilized, with 2,400 high-water vehicles and a dozen aircraft deployed for rescue and recovery efforts.
Along with thousands of electric workers staged to help restore power quickly after the storm passes, the state has about 3 million gallons of drinking water and 1.5 million meals ready to hand out to people in need after the storm, DeSantis said.
Duke Energy, which serves many parts of northwest Florida, said it was preparing crews and equipment to respond to the storm if customers lose power.
To the east of Idalia, Hurricane Franklin, the first major hurricane of the season, meandered in the Atlantic, where it was forecast to turn to the northeast over the next two days. The Category 3 hurricane threatened to bring heavy swells to Bermuda and the US East Coast throughout the week.