Hurricane Idalia is now being tipped to become a Category 4 event, according to the National Hurricane Center, as it barrels towards the Big Bend region of Florida’s Gulf Coast, where locals are bracing themselves for a life-threatening storm surge and dangerous high winds.
Idalia was upgraded from tropical storm status on Tuesday morning as it crossed the Gulf of Mexico and is forecast to hit northwestern Florida on Wednesday, packing 120mph winds, before blowing through southern Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina and then back out into the Atlantic.
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.
Residents of the Sunshine State have meanwhile been loading up on sandbags and many living in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast have already packed up their cars, readied generators and evacuated their homes in preparation.
When Idalia finally makes landfall, it will be the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season, which tends to peak in August and September before coming to an end 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.
5am EDT 30 Aug: #Idalia has become an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane, and is nearing landfall in Florida Big Bend region this morning. Catastrophic & life-threatening impacts from Storm Surge & Winds expected as Idalia moves ashore. https://t.co/y75tVkKVK7 pic.twitter.com/0NfINii9Mo
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) August 30, 2023
Florida’s governor, who liaised with US president Joe Biden on Idalia in Monday, warned of a “major impact” during his Monday news conference, adding: “The property – we can rebuild someone’s home. You can’t unring the bell, though, if somebody stays in harm’s way and does battle with Mother Nature.”
He 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.
Pasco and Levy counties, located north of Tampa, both ordered mandatory evacuations for some residents.
In the latter, officials said the 900 residents of Cedar Key were warned they must be off the island by Tuesday evening because storm surges bringing 15-foot waves would make bridges impassable.
“One word: Leave. It’s not something to discuss,” said commissoner Sue Colson, making herself abundantly clear.
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.
Additional reporting by agencies.