PERRY, Fla. − Downgraded to a tropical storm, what had been Hurricane Idalia powered across southeastern Georgia and the Carolinas on Wednesday evening after making landfall earlier along Florida’s Big Bend as a Category 3 tropical cyclone and driving “catastrophic” storm surge and flooding for hundreds of miles.
As of 2 a.m. Thursday, the storm’s center was located 20 miles southwest of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, heading northeast at 21 mph with sustained winds of 60 mph.
“Flash and river flooding is likely across Georgia and the eastern Carolinas through Thursday,” the National Hurricane Center said in its afternoon update.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a late-afternoon briefing that some of the hardest-hit areas are laden with debris, severely damaged property, and reports of looting. He gave a stern warning to the looters.
“People have a right to defend their property,” DeSantis said. “In this part of Florida, you’ve got a lot of advocates and proponents of the 2nd Amendment, and I’ve seen signs in different people’s yards in the past after these disasters [that say] ‘You loot, we shoot.’ You never know what’s behind that door.”
He said he has told the state’s emergency responders and law enforcement personnel to protect people’s property.
“We are not going to tolerate any looting in the aftermath of a natural disaster. I mean, it’s just ridiculous that you would try to do something like that on the heels of an almost category 4 hurricane hitting this community,” the governor said.
“You go break into somebody’s house, and you’re trying to loot, these are people that are going to be able to defend themselves and their families. We are going to hold you accountable from a law enforcement perspective at a minimum, and it could even be worse than that, depending on what’s behind that door.”
∎ Idalia weakened to a tropical storm while moving near the coasts of northeastern South Carolina and North Carolina Wednesday afternoon.
∎ All hurricane warnings have been cancelled, the hurricane center said.
∎ More than 275,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida as of Wednesday afternoon, according to utility tracker PowerOutage.us. Another 175,000 were powerless in Georgia.
A morning landfall in Taylor County
Radar imagery indicated the eye of Idalia made landfall along the coast of Florida’s Big Bend near Keaton Beach in Taylor County around 7:45 a.m. with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph.
That was the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the Big Bend area of Florida since the “Cedar Key hurricane” of 1896, which also had 125 mph winds, according to Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.
Authorities said the worst damage appeared to be in Taylor County, southeast of Tallahassee and one of the most rural and economically challenged areas of the state. Two businesses reportedly caught fire, some had roofs torn off, and the county’s Emergency Operations Center had to evacuate to more secure facilities.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference Wednesday afternoon in the hard-hit town of Perry, Florida, near where the hurricane barreled ashore.
“There are as of now no confirmed fatalities,” DeSantis said, but added that “we’re still assessing what is going on on the ground in the places that had the initial impact.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency for his state ahead of Idalia.
“Georgians in the expected impact area can and should take necessary steps to ensure their safety and that of their families,” Kemp said, adding that emergency management officials were “well positioned to respond to whatever Idalia may bring.”
After speaking with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis several times about the federal assistance for Hurricane Idalia, President Joe Biden on Wednesday said presidential politics hasn’t been a factor in their interactions.
“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics,” Biden said. “This is about taking care of the people of his state.”
DeSantis is running for the GOP nomination to try to deny Biden a second term.
Making remarks to reporters about how the administration is responding to the storm, Biden also said extreme weather events are causing “significant damage like we’ve never seen before.”
“I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore,” he said.
–Maureen Groppe, USA TODAY
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Follow the path of Idalia
This forecast track shows the most likely path of the center of the storm but does not illustrate the full width of the storm or its impacts, and the center of the storm is likely to travel outside the cone up to 33% of the time.
Cedar Key was pummeled by Hurricane Idalia, and the storm’s roll into Georgia won’t mean an end to the local threat, authorities said. The key was decked by not just hefty winds but a dramatic storm surge. Lt. Scott Tummond of the Levy County Sheriff’s Office said the town hasn’t hit its peak water levels. There’s a full moon, and high tide is coming early Wednesday afternoon, he said.
As of 11:45 a.m., first responders hadn’t been able to launch their rescue efforts. But he said winds were subsiding and the county had plenty of rescue resources.
“The water’s going to rise, and it’s going to rise probably a lot quicker than what they would expect it to,” he said. “If they’re in an area that’s inundated and it gets higher, it may block their ability to get out.”
− Douglas Soule, USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida
North of Tampa in flood-stricken Hudson Beach, Donn Stofan stood alongside Old Dixie Highway about 11:30 a.m. , wracked with worry over his buddy’s safety blocks deep within the neighborhood-wide flood zone.“He’s supposedly on his rowboat with his two dogs and his son,” the the retired Spring Hill electrician said, standing on the Clark Street asphalt by a flooded commercial plaza.“He was out about an hour ago, and he went back to get more stuff. I have his two cats, and his clothing he got out the first time,” Stofan said. “Everything is underwater where he lives.”As Stofan spoke, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission airboat roared to life and floated south down Old Dixie Highway, carrying two first responders.“I’m shaking. I’m a nervous wreck. My wife is almost crying over there,” he said, gesturing toward higher ground.
− Rick Neale, Florida Today
Water entered an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 homes across Pasco County, triggering an array of dangerous rescue operations for residents who rode out the storm, Pasco County Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Jeremy Sidlauskas said.
“We had a lot of people that were in their homes. We had people that were getting up on their roofs. We had people that were hiding out in their attics. We had all kinds of stuff that we encountered today,” Sidlauskas said.
Of great import, firefighters responded to at least two burning homes amid the floodwaters, Sidlauskas said.
“We had multiple structure fires this morning that were very difficult to contain because of the high water. In at least one case, we took a floating fire pump in a boat – and our firefighters went in on foot,” he said.
As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, Sidlauskas said no injuries had been reported in Pasco County. First responders entered flooded neighborhoods, such as Hudson Beach, using jon boats, high-clearance vehicles, brush trucks, tanker trucks, airboats and other vehicles.
“It certainly could have been worse. But this is pretty devastating for the homes and the people in our community,” Sidlauskas said.
Wading through hazardous floodwaters, Hudson High School senior McKenna Colwell and three friends tried to reach her mother’s home in low-lying, hurricane-socked Hudson Beach about 12:45 p.m. Wednesday to see if she was all right.
But Colwell said they were forced to turn around – the water level in the streets near Old Dixie Highway was approaching chest-deep.
“Terrified. Crying. I’ve been crying. And I haven’t heard nothing from her,” Colwell said, walking away from the flooded zone.
“So I don’t know if she’s good. Swimming? Not swimming?” the 18-year-old medical assistant said, shaking her head.
Thwarted on foot, Colwell and her friends vowed to try to use a high-clearance vehicle to reach her mother.
− Rick Neale, Florida Today
Tornadoes were possible across central and northeast Florida into southeast Georgia, the hurricane center said. The tornado threat will increase through the afternoon across coastal South Carolina and continue into Wednesday night for coastal North Carolina.
Idalia was forecast to produce 4 to 8 inches of rain and up to 12 inches in isolated areas from portions of North Florida through central Georgia and South Carolina, then through eastern North Carolina into Thursday. Flash, urban and moderate river flooding with “considerable impacts” were possible, the hurricane center said.
Another danger Idalia brings:Tornadoes are a threat: Here’s what to know.
Idalia was about the size of Colorado
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, minutes after landfall in Keaton Beach, Florida, Idalia’s tropical-storm force wind field covered an area of about 96,211 square miles. That’s a little smaller than the state of Colorado, which measures about 104,000 square miles.
At that time, Idalia’s hurricane-force wind field was 7,850 square miles, about the size of New Jersey, which has about 7,354 square miles of land.
− Jennifer Sangalang and Jeffrey Meesey, Tallahassee Democrat
A weather service tide gauge at Cedar Key reported a water level of 6.8 feet above “mean higher highwater, which is an approximation of inundation in that area,” the weather service said.
Michael Bobbitt, a clam fisherman who decided to stay on Cedar Key to help rescue people who have refused to leave, told USA TODAY just after 6 a.m., “it’s a near apocalyptic scene here.” Bobbitt said storm surge from Hurricane Idalia “completely swallowed our boat ramps,” all of Dock Street and First Street, where the historic downtown begins, and was racing farther inland.
He added that “worst case scenario” predictions of storm surge in Cedar Key may very well occur as Hurricane Idalia, now a category 4, continues toward the Big Bend coast.
In Tarpon Springs, some shops hope for business as usual
More than 150 miles south of where Idalia hit land, floodwaters from the Anclote River swamped the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks, a popular tourist destination. City workers closed vehicle access just shy of the main drag, Pinellas Avenue, where high-clearance vehicles were forced to traverse a flooded stretch of roadway.
Elsewhere in town, street lamps remain lighted in the historic downtown district as some shopkeepers made preparations to open for the day.
Tarpon Springs resident Ken Kruse had mostly shrugged off warnings about Hurricane Idalia’s approach. But by 9 a.m. Wednesday, rising waters from the Anclote River had overwhelmed his street, Grand Avenue, with thigh-high floodwaters, swamping vehicles parked alongside his six-unit apartment complex.“Around 6 o’clock, it looked like it was about to go into my car. It was going to be past the door jamb,” he said as a man atop a stand-up paddle board floated down the street. “So I got out and moved my car to higher ground. And the rest is history. It just kept coming in.”Tarpon Springs first responders shut down an array of streets surrounding Kruse’s neighborhood, near the downtown business district. A green Pinellas County Sheriff’s Humvee with two deputies tried driving past Kruse’s apartment complex but had to retreat because of the water.
− Rick Neale, Florida Today
Hurricane Franklin is still churning in the Atlantic, and now that storm and Hurricane Idalia are visible in the same satellite image. It’s the first time since 1950 the Atlantic Basin − which consists of the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico − has had two Category 2 hurricanes with maximum sustained winds of more than 110 mph in August simultaneously, according to Phil Klotzbach, a research meteorologist at Colorado State University.
− Cheryl McCloud, USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida
Fleeing Taylor County, hunkering down in a shelter
Harold Weaver has spent 55 of his 60 years in Taylor County. He has weathered storms, big and small, but he’s not taking a chance with Hurricane Idalia. Weaver didn’t want to risk staying in his apartment behind the sawmill in Perry, Florida, which is just 20 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
He has his 4-year-old grandson, Karim, to worry about. He and his family took a shuttle from Perry to Tallahassee to weather the storm in one of the seven shelters in Tallahassee.
“This one is too big,” Weaver said. “I had a gut feeling, I need to get out.”
Forrest Allen and his wife, Sheila, traveled to Rickards High School on Tuesday afternoon from Taylor County, where officials issued a mandatory evacuation order and closed shelters.
“We have an old house and it’s not in the best condition,” Forrest Allen said. “We did the best we could with boarding up the windows, but we really don’t know where we stand.”
− Ana Goñi-Lessan and Alaijah Brown, Tallahassee Democrat
Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore seen on Cedar Key
The Weather Channel meteorologist Jim Cantore, famous for being in the middle of major storm events, was reporting from Cedar Key. “We have water entering homes,” and it will get worse, Cantore reported shortly after the storm made landfall about 80 miles to the northwest in Keaton Beach.
Cantore’s arrival was highly anticipated after he tweeted Sunday that he was trying to determine where he would set up for the storm. Sunday was the day Idalia officially formed as a tropical storm after swirling out in the Caribbean as Tropical Depression Ten.
In Clearwater, 20 miles east of Tampa, access to Clearwater Beach, Gulf Boulevard and the causeway were closed. Residents leaving the islands won’t be allowed to return until the storm impact subsides, the city said on its website.
“We are seeing issues with flooding and debris in the roads from #Idalia,” Clearwater police posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Our best advice is for everyone to stay home and off the roads for several hours.”
In Tampa, Flooding shut down much of Gulf Boulevard, the roadway connecting Pinellas County’s barrier islands. Access to the Pinellas barrier islands was closed, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office announced shortly before 6 a.m.
Other coastal roadways were also seeing flooding, traffic signals were out, and wind was gusting 40 to 60 mph, authorities said. Residents on the islands may still evacuate.
The storm’s eye has already passed offshore on its way to landfall in the state’s Big Bend. But flooding in the Tampa Bay region has just begun, ahead of this afternoon’s high tide expected around 2 p.m. A gauge in St. Petersburg has reached major flood level with the water more than 5 feet above Tuesday’s high tide and rising.
“Flooding conditions could continue even after winds from Hurricane Idalia have subsided,” the emergency alert said.
− Dan Glaun, Fort Myers News-Press
In Cedar Key’s quaint downtown and Dock Street area, the streets lined with restaurants and local shops on stilts were deserted. Metal and wood boards were nailed over windows and doors of beloved eateries, clashing with the pastel signage of restaurants bearing the names Tipsy Cow, Steamers and Duncan’s on the Gulf.
It’s one of a cluster of islands in the Gulf Coast known for its wildlife, and it has about 800 residents and only one road going in or out.
Jordan Keeton, 39, owns 83 West, the largest restaurant on the island. It juts out over the Gulf of Mexico, and both floors are surrounded by windows. He and his family and friends were moving out the last of the most valuable items, including a wooden bench shaped like a boat, which has been with the restaurant for over 50 years, he said.
“Our house is rated at a (Category) 5. I’m not worried about it there,” he said.. “This one, not so much. So we’ll see what happens.”
Contributing: James Call, Tallahassee Democrat; Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA TODAY