By Terry Spencer in Perry – The Associated Press
Hurricane Idalia made landfall Wednesday in Florida as a Category 3 storm and unleashed devastation along a wide stretch of the Gulf Coast, submerging homes and vehicles, turning streets into rivers, unmooring small boats and downing power lines before sweeping into Georgia.
Almost 375,000 customers in Florida and Georgia lost power while rushing water covered streets near the coast. As the eye moved inland, high winds shredded signs, sent sheet metal flying and snapped tall trees.
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 (205 kph).
As of midday Wednesday, there were no confirmed storm deaths in Florida, although reports of fatal traffic accidents in two counties may end up being storm-related, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference.
A 59-year-old man driving a pickup truck in heavy rain veered off the road outside Gainesville. In Dade City, north of Tampa, a 40-year-old man lost control of his pickup and crashed into a tree, authorities said.
State officials, 5,500 National Guardsman and rescue crews were in search-and-recovery mode, inspecting bridges, clearing toppled trees and looking for anyone in distress in one of Florida’s most rural regions.
Because of the remoteness, search teams may need more time to complete their work compared with past hurricanes in more urban areas, said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
“You may have two houses on a 5-mile (8-kilometer) road so it’s going to take some time,” Guthries said.
On the island of Cedar Key, downed trees and debris blocked roads, and propane tanks exploded.
RJ Wright stayed behind on Cedar Key so he could check on elderly neighbours. He hunkered down with friends in a motel and when it was safe, walked outside into chest-high water. It could have been a lot worse for the island, which juts into the Gulf, since it didn’t take a direct hit, he said.
“It got pretty gnarly for a while, but it was nothing compared to some of the other storms,” Wright said.
The system remained a hurricane as it crossed into Georgia with top winds of 90 mph (150 km), after drenching Florida mostly to the east of Tallahassee. Forecasters said it would punish the Carolinas overnight as a tropical storm.
Some models had predicted that Idalia could circle southward toward land again after that, but the National Hurricane Center predicted it would move deeper into the Atlantic this weekend.
In the town of Perry, the wind blew out store windows, tore siding off buildings and overturned a gas station canopy. Interstate 275 in Tampa was partially flooded, and toppled power lines closed northbound Interstate 75 just south of Valdosta, Georgia.
About 200 miles to the south of where Idalia made landfall, the roads around the chic shops and restaurants of St. Armands Circle in the Sarasota area were underwater.
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, Florida’s capital, the power went out well before the center of the storm arrived, but the city avoided a direct hit. A giant oak tree next to the governor’s mansion split in half, covering the yard with debris.
“If they do cut down the whole tree, that is more room for my kids to hit baseballs,” DeSantis said.
Storm surge could rise as high as 16 feet (4.9 meters) in some places. Some counties implemented curfews to keep residents off roads.
Diane Flowers was sound asleep at 1 a.m. Wednesday in her Wakulla County, Florida, home, but her husband was up watching the weather on TV when he got a text from their son after the storm was upgraded to a Category 4. He’s a firefighter/EMT in Franklin County, which is also along the Gulf Coast.
“He said, ‘You guys need to leave,’” Flowers said. “And he’s not one for overreacting, so when he told us to leave, we just packed our stuff, got in our car and got going.”
They quickly packed a few clothes, medicine, food for their two border collies, a computer, important documents and a bag of Cheetos. Motels were packed all the way into Alabama, where they ended up finding a room in Dothan.
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.
Idalia grew into a Category 2 system on Tuesday and then a Category 3 storm on Wednesday before peaking as a Category 4 hurricane. It then weakened slightly.
More than 30,000 utility workers in Florida were gathering to make repairs as quickly as possible in the hurricane’s wake. Airports in the region, including Tampa International Airport, planned to restart commercial operations either Wednesday afternoon or Thursday.
In Valdosta, Georgia, Idalia’s fierce winds uprooted trees and sent rain flying sideways, toppling a large tree onto a house and mangling awning. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters that there were no confirmed reports of injuries.
As he finished tying down about 20 sailboats and motor yachts docked on Wilmington Island east of Savannah, Georgia, Brandon Long said his biggest worry was that the storm surge was forecast to coincide with a higher-than-normal tide.
“If these docks float off their pylons or come apart because of the violent current and the choppy waters, then that’s what destroys a marina,” said Long, owner of the Bull River Marina.
Officials in Bermuda warned that Idalia could hit the island early next week as a tropical storm. Bermuda on Wednesday was being lashed by the outer bands of Hurricane Franklin, a Category 2 storm that was on track to pass near the island in the north Atlantic Ocean.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday called DeSantis to let him know that federal support would be available to deal with any destruction from Idalia. The Republican governor and GOP presidential candidate indicated that the state’s needs were currently being met, said Deanne Criswell, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Banner image: Zeke Pierce rides his paddle board down the middle of a flooded Bayshore Blvd in downtown in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Hurricane Idalia steamed toward Florida’s Big Bend region Wednesday morning, threatening deadly storm surges and destructive winds in an area not accustomed to such pummeling. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in St. Louis, Missouri; Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral, Florida; Curt Anderson in Orlando, Florida; Chris O’Meara in Clearwater, Florida; Cristiana Mesquita in Havana; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia; Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina; Seth Borenstein in Washington; Kathy McCormack in Concord, New Hampshire; Tara Copp in Washington; and Julie Walker in New York contributed to this report.