Tropical Storm Idalia is expected to strengthen into a hurricane on Monday and later this week as a strong Category 3 storm could bring potentially catastrophic winds, heavy rain and flooding to Florida’s Gulf Coast, prompting evacuations and school closures in parts of the state.
As of Monday night, Idalia was “almost a hurricane” as it approached the United States, and a life-threatening storm surge was becoming more likely for parts of Florida, the National Hurricane Center said.
According to the center, the storm blew about 20 miles southwest of the western tip of Cuba Monday night with winds reaching 70 miles per hour. More than 8,000 people had been evacuated from coastal areas in western Cuba before the storm, state television broadcasters said on Monday evening.
Idalia is expected to continue to rapidly gain strength until it reaches Florida and transforms into a “major hurricane” by late Tuesday, the center warned.
Idalia is likely to make landfall Wednesday along Florida’s Big Bend — a natural, storm-prone indentation along the coast stretching from Tampa to south of Tallahassee. Storm surges of up to 12 feet are predicted there.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations have been ordered for at least 10 counties, including Hillsborough County, home of Tampa, which imposed mandatory evacuation for some coastal areas. And more than 5,000 National Guard members have been activated to help deal with the storm.
“It’s going to have a big impact,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a news conference Monday.
In Jacksonville, Mayor Donna Deegan declared a local state of emergency and said several shelters would be opened to house people who may need to be evacuated.
Follow live updates: Idalia forces evacuations en route to Florida.
- Rapid intensification is expected: Idalia is forecast to strengthen rapidly from a Category 1 hurricane to a strong Category 3 hurricane Monday night just 24 hours later as it sweeps over exceptionally warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
- A small shift in the route could have a dramatic impact on Tampa: If Idalia makes landfall further south than currently forecast, stronger winds and a larger storm surge could hit Tampa.
- Impacts far outside the cone: Storm surge, wind and rain will affect much of Florida’s Gulf Coast. After the storm makes landfall, damaging winds and heavy rains will spread far inland to Florida, parts of Georgia and even the Carolinas.
The effects of Idalia will be felt from the Florida Keys to parts of the state’s west coast as early as Tuesday. Wind speeds will increase over the Florida Keys and the state’s southwest coast as early as Tuesday morning. Gusty winds are likely across much of Florida, including inland areas, through Tuesday night as Idalia’s outer bands pull inland.
Idalia is expected to affect much of Florida, but the worst the storm has to offer will stretch north from Tampa through the Big Bend region and into parts of the Panhandle.
Conditions will deteriorate rapidly in those areas from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning as landfall draws closer.
Life-threatening storm surges of up to 12 feet are possible in Florida’s Big Bend, only made worse by waves created by hurricane-force winds exceeding 100 miles per hour.
A storm surge, in which a storm blows the sea ashore, is one of the deadliest aspects of a hurricane and the reason for most storm evacuations.
During Hurricane Ian, a 10- to 15-foot storm surge ripped buildings off their foundations in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. A rise of 8 to 12 feet was predicted from Idalia, which Michael Brennan, the director of the National Hurricane Center, called “our biggest concern”.
“These are areas you don’t want to be in if you’re being told to evacuate,” Brennan said.
A storm surge warning is in effect from Englewood, Fla., north to Indian Pass, including Tampa Bay — meaning there is a life-threatening risk from rising waters.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations were ordered in several Florida counties as of Monday morning, which DeSantis said would increase.
“Evacuation orders will be issued for all Gulf Coast districts in the A and B Zones (and all locations on the barrier islands that are deep offshore),” DeSantis said.
Mandatory evacuations were announced Monday for Pasco, Manatee, Hernando, Taylor, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Citrus counties for low-lying coastal areas and vulnerable structures.
Hillsborough County’s evacuation orders include portions of the Tampa-area.
“If the governor issues an evacuation order, it means your life is in danger,” Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw warned.
Tampa International Airport announced it would suspend all commercial operations at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The airport announced it would reopen Thursday morning after taking stock of the damage caused by the storm.
DeSantis extended a state of emergency to 46 of Florida’s 67 counties Monday morning.
Utilities would also begin providing staff on Monday, the governor said.
“If you’re in the path of the storm, expect power outages. So please prepare for that,” the governor told residents.
The University of Florida announced that its campus will be closed and classes will be canceled beginning Tuesday noon and through Wednesday.
Florida State University announced its Tallahassee campuses will remain closed Wednesday and classes will be canceled. Florida A&M University also announced that its main Tallahassee campus will be closed on Wednesday.
Schools across the region also canceled classes to prepare for the storm. Hillsborough County Public Schools announced that all classes and activities Tuesday and Wednesday will be canceled.
Georgia also prepared for the arrival of Idalia. Governor Brian Kemp activated the state operations center on Monday.
“Georgia will be prepared for whatever Idalia will bring,” Kemp said. “Rest assured, while the system will likely weaken before we exceed our limit, we don’t take anything for granted.”