Hurricane Idalia flooded low-lying areas around Tampa Bay before heading north and slamming into the Big Bend.
Hurricane Idalia made landfall Wednesday morning on Florida’s west coast, where it unleashed life-threatening storm surges and rainfall across an area that has never before received such pummeling.
More than 242,000 customers were without electricity as trees snapped by strong winds brought down power lines and rushing water covered streets. Along the coast, some homes were submerged to near their rooftops and structures crumpled. As the eye moved inland, destructive winds shredded signs and sent sheet metal flying.
“We have multiple trees down, debris in the roads, do not come,” posted the fire and rescue department in Cedar Key, where a tide gauge measured the storm surge at 6.8 feet, submerging most of the downtown. “We have propane tanks blowing up all over the island.”
Idalia came ashore in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula. It made landfall near Keaton Beach at 7:45 a.m. as a high-end Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph.
It remained a Category 2 hurricane with top winds of 105 mph (165 mph) at 10 a.m., and it was expected to remain a hurricane after crossing Florida east of Tallahassee. Just south of Valdosta, Georgia, Interstate 75 was closed after power lines fell across the highway.
Forecasters said it would punish the Carolinas overnight as a tropical storm. Some models predicted Idalia could circle southward toward land again after that, but the National Hurricane Center forecast it to move deeper into the Atlantic this weekend.
Astounded by the flooding that turned Tampa’s Bayshore Boulevard into a river, Bill Hall watched a paddleboarder ride along the major thoroughfare.
“This is actually unbelievable,” Hall said. “I haven’t seen anything like this in years.”
In Tallahassee,the power went out well before the center of the storm arrived.
Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey urged everyone to shelter in place — it was too late to risk going outside. Florida residents living in vulnerable coastal areas had been ordered to pack up and leave as Idalia gained strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
“Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday morning. “This thing’s powerful. If you’re inside, just hunker down until it gets past you.”
Storm surge could rise as high as 16 feet in some places. Some counties implemented curfews to keep residents off roads.
“For those who have chosen to remain on the beaches despite the mandatory evacuation order, please restrict your water and toilet usage,” the city of Clearwater posted. “Due to flooding, the city’s lift stations and stormwater system are under strain.”
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have ever passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend. The state, still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian, feared disastrous results.
But not everyone heeded the warnings.
Andy Bair, owner of the Island Hotel on Cedar Key, said he intended to “babysit” his bed-and-breakfast, which predates the Civil War. The building has not flooded in the almost 20 years he has owned it, not even when Hurricane Hermine flooded the city in 2016.
“Being a caretaker of the oldest building in Cedar Key, I just feel kind of like I need to be here,” Bair said. “We’ve proven time and again that we’re not going to wash away. We may be a little uncomfortable for a couple of days, but we’ll be OK eventually.”
Idalia had grown into a Category 2 system on Tuesday afternoon and became a Category 3 just hours earlier Wednesday before strengthening to a Category 4 and then weakening slightly to a high-end Category 3.
In Tarpon Springs, on the coast northwest of Tampa, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital after warnings of a potential 7-foot storm surge there.