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Hurricane Idalia reaches Category 4 with 130 mph winds as it nears the Big Bend


Hurricane Idalia strengthened to a dangerous Category 4 storm early today as it steamed toward Florida’s Big Bend region, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm has maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) as it continued to intensify overnight amid baking Gulf waters. At 5 a.m., the hurricane center said Idalia was 60 miles west of Cedar Key but was headed east-northeast at a blistering 18 mph.

Although the eye is on track to come ashore in the Big Bend area, dangerous bands feeding the storm are crossing much of western Florida, with tropical storm winds, flooding in coastal counties, tornado warnings in inland counties, and more than 44,000 reported power outages.

The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have ever passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend.

The power cyclone could be a big blow to a state still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian. Florida residents living in vulnerable coastal areas were ordered to pack up and leave as authorities warned of a “catastrophic storm surge and destructive winds.”

Another concern was the presence of a rare blue supermoon, which can cause higher-than-normal king tides. Officials have warned of Wednesday afternoon high tides that could bring record-high storm surges hours after Idalia makes landfall.

"We're going to see ... water being stacked up in our bays and along our rivers for a very long time into the evening hours tonight," Citrus County Sheriff Mike Pendergrast told Bay News 9 early today. "And that's that's going to be the most disastrous time for the people to be back out there."

Cedar Key was expected to be at low tide shortly after sunrise today, with Idalia forecast to make landfall a few hours later. That’s a bit of a relief since the water level would be higher if the storm surge arrived during a high tide, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy.

“That definitely plays a role in coastal flooding,” McNoldy said.

On the island of Cedar Key in Levy County, Commissioner Sue Colson joined other city officials in packing up documents and electronics at City Hall. She had a message for the almost 900 residents who were under mandatory orders to evacuate. More than a dozen state troopers went door to door warning residents that storm surge could rise as high as 15 feet (4.5 meters).

“One word: Leave,” Colson said. “It’s not something to discuss.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis repeated the warning at an afternoon news conference.

“You really gotta go now. Now is the time,” he said. Earlier, the governor stressed that residents didn’t necessarily need to leave the state, but should “get to higher ground in a safe structure.”

"You can ride the storm out there, then go back to your home,” he said.

Not everyone was heeding the warning. Andy Bair, owner of the Island Hotel, said he intended to “babysit” his bed-and-breakfast, which predates the Civil War. The building has not flooded in the almost 20 years he has owned it, not even when Hurricane Hermine flooded the city in 2016.

“Being a caretaker of the oldest building in Cedar Key, I just feel kind of like I need to be here,” Bair said. “We've proven time and again that we’re not going to wash away. We may be a little uncomfortable for a couple of days, but we’ll be OK eventually.”

Tolls were waived on highways out of the danger area, shelters were open and hotels prepared to take in evacuees. More than 30,000 utility workers were gathering to make repairs as quickly as possible in the hurricane's wake. About 5,500 National Guard troops were activated.

In Tarpon Springs, 60 patients were evacuated from a hospital out of concern that the system could bring a 7-foot (2.1-meter) storm surge along the Pinellas County coast.

Idalia's initial squalls were being felt in the Florida Keys and the southwestern coast of Florida on Tuesday afternoon.

In Clearwater Beach, workers at beachside bars and T-shirt shops boarded up windows, children skim-surfed the waves and hundreds of people watched the increasingly choppy waters from the safety of the sand.

After landing in the Big Bend region, Idalia is forecast to cross the Florida peninsula and then drench southern Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday. Both Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced states of emergency, freeing up state resources and personnel, including hundreds of National Guard troops.

“We’ll be prepared to the best of our abilities,” said Russell Guess, who was topping off the gas tank on his truck in Valdosta, Georgia. His co-workers at Cunningham Tree Service were doing the same. "There will be trees on people’s house, trees across power lines.”

Idalia will be the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season. Floridians viewed the storm's name with some concern since 13 Atlantic storm names beginning with “I” have been retired since 1955, according to the National Weather Service. That happens when a storm’s death toll or destruction is so severe that using its name again would be insensitive.

With a large stretch of Florida's western coast at risk for storm surges and floods, evacuation notices were issued in 22 counties, with mandatory orders for some people in eight of those counties. Many of the notices were for low-lying and coastal areas and for people living in mobile and manufactured homes, recreational vehicles or boats, and for people who would be vulnerable in a power outage.

Many school districts along the Gulf coast were to be closed through at least Wednesday. Several colleges and universities also closed, including the University of Florida in Gainesville and University of South Florida campuses in the greater Tampa Bay region. Florida State University in Tallahassee said its campus would be closed through Friday.

Two of the region's largest airports stopped commercial operations, and MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa sent several aircraft to safer locations. Busch Gardens closed.

On Florida's Space Coast, on the other side of the peninsula from where Idalia is expected to make landfall, United Launch Alliance said Tuesday that it was delaying the launch of a rocket carrying satellites for U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.

Asked about the hurricane as he sat down for a meeting with Costa Rican President Rodrigo Chaves in the Oval Office on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said he had spoken to DeSantis and “provided him with everything that he possibly needs.”

Hurricane Ian was responsible last year for almost 150 deaths after making landfall in Lee County, The Category 5 hurricane damaged 52,000 structures, nearly 20,000 of which were destroyed or severely damaged.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said the 2023 hurricane season would be far busier than initially forecast, partly because of extremely warm ocean temperatures. The season runs through Nov. 30, with August and September typically the peak.

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