Tropical Storm Idalia is expected to strengthen into a hurricane Monday and could bring potentially catastrophic winds, heavy rain and flooding to Florida’s Gulf Coast as a powerful Category 3 storm later this week, prompting evacuations and school closures in parts of the state.
Idalia was packing 70 mph winds and was roughly 20 miles southwest of Cuba’s western tip, the National Hurricane Center said Monday evening.
And the storm is predicted to continue getting rapidly stronger until it makes landfall in Florida, turning into a “major hurricane” by late Tuesday, the center warned.
Idalia will likely make landfall Wednesday along Florida’s Big Bend – a natural, storm surge-prone divot along the coast stretching from Tampa to just south of Tallahassee. Up to 12 feet of storm surge is forecast there.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations were issued for at least eight counties with less than 48 hours before the storm is expected to make landfall in the state. And more than 5,000 National Guard members were activated to help respond to the storm.
“This is going to be a major impact,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Monday news conference.
Follow live updates: Idalia forces evacuations as it heads toward Florida.
Idalia could arrive as soon as Tuesday
Impacts from Idalia will be felt from the Florida Keys to portions of the state’s western coast as soon as Tuesday. Wind speeds will increase across the Florida Keys and the state’s southwestern coast as early as Tuesday morning. Gusty winds are likely across a large portion of Florida, including inland areas, by Tuesday night as Idalia’s outer bands lap inland.
A large swath of Florida is expected to experience impacts from Idalia, but the worst of what the storm has to offer will stretch from Tampa northward through the Big Bend region and into portions of the Panhandle.
Conditions will deteriorate rapidly in these areas Tuesday overnight into Wednesday morning as landfall draws closer.
Idalia’s life-threatening storm surge ‘our biggest concern’
Life-threatening storm surge up to 12 feet is possible in Florida’s Big Bend which will only be worsened by waves driven by hurricane-force winds in excess of 100 mph.
Storm surge, which is when a storm blows the ocean onshore, is one of the deadliest aspects of a hurricane and the reason behind most storm evacuations.
“It happens quickly and can endanger you, your family & your home,” the Florida Division of Emergency Management agency warned.
During Hurricane Ian, 10 to 15 feet of storm surge wiped buildings off their foundations in Fort Myers Beach, Florida. From Idalia, 8 to 12 feet of surge was predicted, something Michael Brennan, the National Hurricane Center’s director, called “our biggest concern.”
“These are areas you don’t want to be in if you’ve been asked to evacuate,” Brennan said.
A storm surge warning – which means there’s a life-threatening danger from rising waters – is in effect from Englewood, Florida, all the way north to Indian Pass, including Tampa Bay.
Evacuations ordered in Florida
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations were issued in multiple Florida counties Monday morning, which DeSantis warned would expand.
“There are going to be evacuation orders issued in all these Gulf Coast counties in the A and B zones (and) all the barrier islands places that are low-lying on the coast,” DeSantis said.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered Monday for Pasco, Manatee, Hernando, Taylor, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota and Citrus counties for low-lying coastal areas and vulnerable structures.
The evacuation orders in Hillsborough County include parts of the Tampa area.
“If and when the governor issues an evacuation order, that means your life is in danger,” Tampa Police Chief Lee Bercaw warned.
Tampa International Airport announced it would cease all commercial operations by 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. The airport announced it aimed to reopen Thursday morning, after taking stock of what damage the storm left behind.
DeSantis expanded an emergency declaration to 46 of 67 Florida counties on Monday morning.
Power companies will also start staging personnel on Monday, the governor said.
“If you are in the path of the storm, you should expect power outages so please prepare for that,” the governor told residents.
The University of Florida announced its campus will close and classes will be canceled starting at noon on Tuesday and through Wednesday.
Florida State University said its Tallahassee campuses will be closed Wednesday and classes will be canceled. Florida A&M University also announced its Tallahassee main campus will be closed Wednesday.
Schools across the region also canceled class in preparation for the severe weather. Hillsborough County Public Schools announced all classes and activities will be canceled Tuesday and Wednesday.
Georgia, too, was preparing for Idalia’s arrival. Gov. Brian Kemp activated the State Operations Center Monday.
“Georgia will be prepared for whatever Idalia will bring,” Kemp said. “Rest assured, though the system will likely weaken before crossing our border, we’re not taking anything for granted.”