Hurricane Idalia made landfall in northwestern Florida on Wednesday morning – bringing heavy winds, torrential rains and sending thousands of people fleeing for safety – and is expected to cut a path of destruction across southern Georgia and the Carolinas before heading into the Atlantic.
However, the Global Forecasting System, a US federal hurricane projection model, has caused alarm by indicating that the hurricane could then circle back and strike the Sunshine State for a second time early next week, albeit after losing much of its initial power.
According to The Daily Beast, other models, including that of the trusted European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, do not support that conclusion and such looping is considered highly unusual for tropical storms but is not unprecedented.
Hurricane Ivan, for instance, came back around to strike Florida for a second time in 2004, ultimately taking 25 lives and causing $20.5bn-worth of damage.
Idalia was upgraded from a tropical storm to hurricane status on Tuesday as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico. It reached Category 4 strength before being downgraded to a Category 3 when it made landfall at around 7.45am ET on Wednesday.
Western Cuba has already been hit by torrential rainfall and flooding from Idalia that could yet lead to mudslides, bringing further devastation to the tobacco-producing province of Pinar del Rio on Monday and Tuesday, which was hammered by Hurricane Ian last September. State media has yet to report any deaths in the area.
Floridians meanwhile loaded up on sandbags and many living in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast packed up their cars, readied generators and evacuated their homes in preparation.
Idalia marked the first major storm to strike Florida this hurricane season, which tends to peak in August and September before coming to a close in late November.
It is expected to bring fresh destruction to a state that, like Cuba, is still dealing with the damage left behind by Hurricane Ian 11 months ago, which left 150 people dead and damaged 52,000 structures.
Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency in 46 counties, a broad swathe that stretches across the northern half of the state from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic.
His state has also mobilised 5,500 National Guard members, who have 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft at their disposal for rescue and recovery efforts.
A further 30,000 utility workers are on standby to make repairs where needed.
— Pettus Weather (@PettusWX) August 28, 2023
Florida’s governor said the Florida Department of Transportation would waive tolls on highways in the Tampa area and the Big Bend to help ease the flow of movement as residents seek to escape the path of the storm.
Tampa International Airport and St Pete-Clearwater International Airport have been closed and the Sunrail commuter rail service in Orlando has been suspended.
Many school districts along the Gulf Coast said they would be closed on Wednesday and several colleges and universities have likewise shut their campuses, including the University of Florida in Gainesville.
A total of 22 counties in western Florida have issued evacuation notices, with mandatory orders in place for some people living in low-lying and coastal areas, for those living in mobile or manufactured homes, recreational vehicles and boats and for people who would be vulnerable in the event of a power outage.
Hurricane Idalia is just the latest in a summer of natural disasters to hit North America, from deadly wildfires in Hawaii and Canada to the first tropical storm to hit California in 84 years – marking the latest illustrations of the climate crisis in action.