Residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast have started to prepare for what forecasters called “a dangerous major hurricane” to make landfall early Wednesday, bringing heavy winds and storm surge to parts of the state battered less than a year ago by Hurricane Ian.
Tropical Storm Idalia was east of Cancún on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula at midday on Monday. It was expected to intensify and become a hurricane as it passed western Cuba and moved north into the Gulf of Mexico.
Forecasters with the National Hurricane Center said the storm was expected to rapidly intensify on Tuesday over the Gulf’s warm waters and continue to strengthen until landfall. It was likely to hit Florida as a Category 3 storm, they said, with winds of 115 miles per hour.
At least one county in Florida issued an evacuation order for some residents on Monday, and Gov. Ron DeSantis said more would be likely as the storm neared. “This is going to be a major hurricane,” he said, warning everyone in the storm’s path to make preparations on Monday before it became too late.
“Late Tuesday, early Wednesday, it’s going to start to get really nasty,” the governor said.
Anticipating major disruptions, Tampa International Airport announced that it would close just after midnight early Tuesday morning and urged travelers to check the status of their flights with airlines.
Pasco County, just north of Tampa, ordered people living in low-lying areas and mobile homes to evacuate on Monday morning, and urged other residents to leave as well. MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa also ordered a mandatory base-wide evacuation by 10 a.m. Tuesday, except for certain essential personnel.
Mayor Donna Deegan of Jacksonville — a flood-prone city that is far from the Gulf Coast but within the path of the storm once it moves inland — declared a state of emergency on Monday and said that district schools would be closed on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Shelters were set to open at noon on Tuesday.
Exactly where Idalia comes ashore will be difficult to predict, because the storm is expected to run parallel to Florida’s western coast. The National Weather Service warned that “only a small deviation in the track could cause a significant change in Idalia’s landfall location.”
Forecasters said the west coast of Florida was likely to experience life-threatening storm surge and dangerous winds by late Tuesday.
President Biden spoke with Governor DeSantis on Monday and approved an emergency declaration for Florida ahead of Idalia’s arrival, according to a White House statement. The governor said schools would be closed along the Gulf Coast and urged people to heed any warnings from local officials — but said it was not necessary for people to leave the state to escape the danger.
“It’s not necessary to outrun the storm,” he said. “Just get to higher ground.”
Another storm, Hurricane Franklin, also strengthened in the Atlantic on Monday, but it was not expected to pose a serious threat to land.
As of 11 a.m. on Monday, Idalia was 80 miles south-southwest of the western tip of Cuba and had maximum sustained winds of 65 m.p.h., the Hurricane Center said. Tropical storm-force winds extended up to 105 miles from the storm’s center.
Storm surge watches were in effect for parts of Florida on Monday, and a hurricane warning extended from the middle of Longboat Key northward to the Ochlockonee River, including Tampa Bay. A hurricane warning was also in effect for the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio.
The Hurricane Center noted in an advisory on Monday morning that Idalia (pronounced ee-DAL-ya) could produce four to seven inches of rain in western Cuba, and four to eight inches in portions of the west coast of Florida, the Florida Panhandle, southeast Georgia and the eastern Carolinas.
A tropical storm watch was also issued for the Gulf Coast south of Englewood, which is about 80 miles south of Tampa, to Chokoloskee, a community south of Fort Myers, while a storm surge watch was in effect from Chokoloskee to Indian Pass.
The combination of the tide and storm surge was expected to bring water levels up to 11 feet in some parts of the Florida coast, forecasters said.
Florida emergency officials told residents to keep their gas tanks at least half-full as evacuations were ordered, and the state mobilized 1,100 members of the National Guard, which has 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft ready for rescue efforts.
The Gulf Coast of Florida suffered extensive damage from both Hurricane Ian last year and Hurricane Michael in 2018. Both rapidly intensified before striking Florida as major hurricanes, with significant wind speeds and storm surges. Michael made landfall in the Panhandle, while Ian hit the southwestern part of the state.
There is consensus among scientists that hurricanes are becoming more powerful because of climate change. Although there might not be more named storms overall, the likelihood of major hurricanes is increasing.
Climate change also increases the amount of rain that storms can produce. In a warming world, the air can hold more moisture, which means a storm can hold and produce more rainfall, like Hurricane Harvey did in Texas in 2017, when some areas received more than 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours.
Orlando Mayorquin and Claire Moses contributed reporting.