Idalia is set to hit Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday as a major hurricane
Written by Rich McKay, Dave Sherwood, and Brendan O’Brien
(Reuters) – Tropical Storm Idalia moved closer to Florida’s Gulf Coast on Tuesday after passing Cuba and heading toward the U.S. mainland as a powerful Category 3 storm, prompting authorities to order the evacuation of vulnerable coastal areas.
Idalia was expected to reach major hurricane status — with sustained winds of at least 111 mph (179 kph) — Wednesday morning before making landfall later in the day, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). Based in Miami.
NHC’s latest forecast of the storm’s track showed the center of Idalia likely crossing the Florida coast somewhere in the Big Bend region, where the state’s northern beggar curves into the Gulf side of the Florida Peninsula.
The storm’s accumulating strength and uncertainty about its path as it moved north over the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico placed about 14 million Floridians under hurricane and tropical storm warnings.
Authorities said Idalia’s main threat to human life stemmed from rising walls of seawater that would be pushed inland by high winds, inundating low-lying coastal areas.
Storm warnings have been posted for hundreds of miles of coastline, from the Sarasota area north through Tampa and extending to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay.
“Be prepared for this,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said during a press conference Monday afternoon.
Hurricane Idalia is expected to reach hurricane strength early Tuesday after sweeping through the western tip of Cuba, and is expected to reach Category 3 strength – classified as a major hurricane – on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale by the time it reaches Florida on Wednesday. The National Health Commission said.
It would be the fourth major hurricane to hit Florida in the past seven years, after Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018, and Ian, which peaked at Category 5 status, last September.
In its latest bulletin, the National Hurricane Center reported the hurricane was moving about 55 miles (90 km) off the western tip of Cuba as it crawled north, packing maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 kph).
Brush with Cuba
Cubans scrambled to evacuate coastal towns, demolishing homes and tying up fishing boats as Hurricane Idalia lingered for hours Monday near the western tip of the Caribbean island nation.
By mid-afternoon, dark brown flood waters submerged the small fishing village of Goan, an hour’s drive south of Havana.
Decades-old buses, without floorboards and windows, carried women and children to higher ground as winds howled, rattled tin roofs and battered fishing boats hidden in the mangroves.
“It rained two days ago,” said Yadira Alvarez, 34, as she prepared to evacuate with her five children. “We are trying to prepare, but no matter what we do, everything will fail.”
She said the storm waters had already swelled to knee-high inside her home.
To the west, stronger winds near the center of the storm battered the tobacco-rich province of Pinar del Rio, home to the raw materials for some of the world’s best Cuban cigars.
The authorities evacuated tens of thousands of people from that province as well as neighboring Artemisa, while heavy rains fell on the Cuban capital, Havana.
Move to higher ground
Evacuations of barrier islands and other low-lying areas on Florida’s Gulf Coast began Monday.
Shannon Hartsfield, who runs a fishing boat in Apalachicola Bay along the state’s coast, heeded the warnings, even though he lives west of where the expected landfall is expected.
Hartsfield said he and many of his fellow fishermen pulled most of their boats out of the bay and moved them to higher ground. Others who have run out of time and left their crab traps behind must now wait until after the storm to assess their losses.
“It could turn a little bit west and come right at us,” Hartsfield said. “I hope we don’t face the worst of it.”
Starting Tuesday, Florida’s Gulf Coast along with southeast Georgia and eastern parts of North and South Carolina will experience heavy rains of 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) that could lead to scattered flooding, as well as tidal inundation from storm surge and hurricane. Center warned.
School districts across the region have canceled classes beginning Monday afternoon. Tampa International Airport plans to suspend commercial operations beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday.
DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 46 Florida counties. About 5,500 National Guard troops were mobilized and thousands of electricians were prepared to help quickly restore power after the storm passed.
Far to the east of Idalia, Hurricane Franklin, the first major hurricane of the season, meandered in the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to turn to the northeast over the next couple of days. The category 4 storm threatened to bring severe waves to Bermuda and the east coast of the United States throughout the week.
(Reporting by Rich MacKay in Atlanta, Dave Sherwood in Guanimar, Cuba, and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago. Additional writing and reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Swati Verma in Bengaluru; Editing by Lincoln Feast)