Hurricane Idalia has gained strength over the Gulf of Mexico on its relentless crawl toward Florida’s Gulf Coast, forcing evacuations in low-lying coastal areas expected to be swamped when the powerful storm hits.
Idalia was generating maximum sustained winds of 160km/h by early Tuesday evening, but its intensity will ratchet higher before it slams ashore in the early hours of Wednesday, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre (NHC).
By that time, the storm was forecast to reach Category 3 strength — classified as a major hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of at least 180km/h — on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale.
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The hurricane was upgraded on Tuesday evening to a Category 2 after its top wind speeds surpassed 155km/h, feeding on the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Idalia’s most dangerous feature, however, appeared to be the powerful surge of wind-driven seawater it is expected to deliver to barrier islands and other vulnerable areas along the coast.
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged residents in low-lying communities to heed orders to seek higher ground, warning that the storm surge could cause life-threatening floods.
“The time is running out very, very rapidly,” he said at an afternoon news briefing.
Idalia related disruptions extended to Florida’s Atlantic coast at Cape Canaveral, where the Tuesday launch of a rocket carrying a US Space Force intelligence satellite was delayed indefinitely due to the hurricane.
Most of Florida’s 21 million residents, along with many in Georgia and South Carolina, were under hurricane, tropical storm and storm surge warnings and advisories.
Idalia grew from a tropical storm into a hurricane early on Tuesday, a day after passing west of Cuba, where it damaged homes and flooded villages.
A satellite image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Idalia, centre, approaching Florida’s Gulf Coast. Credit: AP
By Tuesday evening, the storm was churning about 310km southwest of Tampa as it crept northward.
Idalia is in line to become the fourth major hurricane to strike Florida over the past seven years, following Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018 and Ian, which peaked at Category 5, last September.
Florida’s Gulf Coast along with southeastern Georgia and eastern portions of North and South Carolina could face torrential rains of 10 to 20cm through Thursday, with isolated areas seeing as much as 30cm, the hurricane centre warned.
Surge warnings were posted for hundreds of kilometres of shoreline, from Sarasota to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay. In some areas, the surge of water could rise 3m to 4.6m, the NHC said.
“The No. 1 killer in all of these storms is water,” Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, said on CNN.
Storm clouds loom over riverfront homes in Steinhatchee, Florida ahead of the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia. Credit: APA chalkboard outside Duncan’s on the Gulf reads ‘Closed Till Thurs Due to Hurricane Idalia. Be Safe’, as businesses prepare for the expected arrival of Hurricane Idalia in Cedar Key, Florida. Credit: AP
More than 40 school districts in Florida cancelled classes, DeSantis said.
Tampa International Airport planned to suspend commercial operations at midday Tuesday.
Some 5500 National Guard troops were mobilised, while 30,000 to 40,000 electricity workers were placed on standby.
The state has set aside 1.1 million gallons of petrol to address any interruptions to fuel supplies, DeSantis said.
As Floridians braced for Idalia’s arrival, Cubans were grappling with the aftermath of the storm, which lingered for hours on Monday near the western end of the Caribbean island nation, toppling trees and flooding coastal villages.
In Pinar del Rio, an area known for producing the tobacco used to make some of the world’s finest cigars, 60 per cent of the province was without power.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated.
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