Tropical Storm Idalia, which formed Sunday, was expected to strengthen into a Category 2 hurricane by the time it hits Florida’s Gulf Coast on Tuesday, and forecasters said it would be a “very significant and influential hurricane.”
Winds of a maximum of 100 miles per hour have been forecast, according to Jamie Rhome, associate director of the National Hurricane Center, he said in an update Sunday night.
“Evacuations could be required later today or tomorrow for this storm,” Mr Rhome said.
“The dangers will definitely continue beyond the cone,” he added, referring to forecast maps showing the storm’s possible path. “Don’t focus solely on the cone to determine your risk.”
Idalia, the last-named storm of the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, is also threatening to bring heavy rains to Georgia and the Carolinas, according to forecasters.
A hurricane warning has been issued for a large portion of western Florida, stretching from Englewood to Indian Pass and including Tampa Bay, officials said.
A tropical storm warning was also issued from the Gulf Coast south of Englewood, about 80 miles south of Tampa, to Chokoloskee, a community about 65 miles south of Fort Myers, while a storm surge warning was in effect from Chokoloskee to Indian Pass.
The Florida Department of Emergency Management told the residents to keep their gas tanks at least half full should an emergency evacuation be ordered.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order Saturday declaring states of emergency in 33 counties in preparation for the storm.
“If you are in the path of this storm you must expect power outages so please prepare for this,” he said Sunday. “If you are dependent on the Force – particularly if you are elderly or have medical needs – please plan to visit an emergency shelter.”
The state mobilized 1,100 members of the National Guard, which has 2,400 flood vehicles and 12 planes ready for rescue operations. From Monday, utilities will keep their workers on standby.
The Hurricane Center said in a statement Sunday that parts of Florida’s west coast, the Florida Panhandle and South Georgia could experience up to 15 inches of rain Tuesday through Wednesday, with scattered rainfall as high as 10 inches.
Heavy rains were also expected to spread to parts of the Carolinas Wednesday through Thursday, the center said.
“Rainfalls can cause flash floods and urban flooding, as well as landslides throughout western Cuba,” the center said. “Isolated flash flooding and urban flooding in parts of Florida’s west coast, the Florida Panhandle and parts of the southeastern United States are also expected Tuesday through Thursday.”
On Sunday evening, Cuba issued a hurricane warning for Pinar Del Rio, a city two hours’ drive west of the state capital, Havana. The Cuban government has also changed the tropical storm warning for the Isle of Youth to a tropical storm warning.
A tropical storm warning was issued for the Dry Tortugas Islands, which were previously under surveillance, and a warning was in place for Lower Florida Keys West, west of the Seven Mile Bridge, the center said Sunday night.
Meteorologists said the combination of high tide and storm surge would cause water levels to rise as high as 11 feet in some parts of Florida’s coast.
The storm had maximum sustained wind speeds of 60 miles per hour and was 145 miles south of the western tip of Cuba on Sunday night. It was expected to move across the Gulf of Mexico on Monday and strengthen into a hurricane by Tuesday as it approaches Florida.
Florida’s west coast has been no stranger to hurricanes in recent years.
Hurricane Ian in 2022 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 caused significant damage from high winds and storm surges after exiting the Caribbean and rapidly strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Florida as major hurricanes.
Michael hit the Panhandle while Ian hit the southwestern edge of the state.
Other storms, like 2020’s Eta and 2021’s Elsa, also reached hurricane strength in the Gulf but weakened before making landfall on the coast of Big Bend, Florida.
The Atlantic hurricane season began on June 1st and will last through November 30th.
Franklin became the second hurricane of the Atlantic season on Saturday. Tropical Storm Emily was downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone on Monday after forming the day before, and Gert was also short-lived. Tropical Storm Harold formed in the Gulf of Mexico early Tuesday and made landfall in Texas in the morning.
Briefly forming as a hurricane in July, Don was the first hurricane of the Atlantic season.
Last year there were 14 named storms, after two extremely busy Atlantic hurricane seasons, in which forecasters ran out of names and had to resort to spare lists. (2020 saw a record 30 named storms.)
Scientists agree that hurricanes are becoming stronger due to climate change. Although there may be more unnamed storms overall, the likelihood of severe hurricanes is increasing.
Climate change is also affecting the amount of rain that storms can produce. In a warming world, the air can hold more moisture, meaning a named storm can hold and produce more rain, like Hurricane Harvey did in Texas in 2017, when some areas fell more than 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours .
Orlando Mayorquin contributed coverage.