Tropical Storm Idalia strengthened as it headed north through the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to strike Florida’s west coast Wednesday as a tree-snapping major hurricane.
Idalia’s winds grew to 65 miles (105 kilometers) per hour and are forecast to reach Category 3 strength at 115 mph as the storm makes landfall Wednesday after hitting western Cuba, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 8. a.m. New York time. Depending on its exact track, Idalia could cause up to $10 billion in damage and losses, according to a disaster modeling firm Enki Research.
“Idalia is now forecast to become a major hurricane before it reaches the Gulf Coast of Florida,” Eric Blake, a senior hurricane specialist at the U.S. center, wrote in his outlook. “The risk continues to increase for life-threatening storm surge and dangerous hurricane-force winds along portions of the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle beginning as early as late Tuesday.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has urged residents to prepare and declared an emergency in 33 counties mostly along the state’s Gulf Coast.
The state mobilized 1,100 National Guard troops, who will have access to 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft that can be used for rescue and recovery, DeSantis said at news conference Sunday. The governor said the majority of emergency resources would be staged in Marion County and parts of north Florida, but warned that hurricane path modeling can be unpredictable and said residents needed to stay vigilant.
In addition to its winds, Idalia could push as much as 11 feet of water onto the shore from the Aucilla River to Chassahowitzka, Florida, and up to 7 feet into Tampa Bay, as well as drench a large area as far north as the Carolinas with up to 8 inches of rain. Flooding downpours that could spark landslides are also expected across western Cuba as the storm moves north.
The exact spot Idalia will come ashore isn’t certain because even a small change in track could move landfall by miles.
If it reaches forecast strength, Idalia would be the first major hurricane to hit Florida since last September when Hurricane Ian struck the western part of the state as a Category 4 storm, killing at least 150 people and causing more than $112 billion in damage, the hurricane center said.
Idalia is expected to stay in the eastern Gulf, away from offshore oil and natural gas production. However it may affect agriculture across the South, as well as bring widespread power outages and snarl land and air travel.
Meanwhile to the east, Hurricane Franklin’s winds have reached 115 mph, making a Category 3 storm as it churns in the Atlantic southwest of Bermuda. Despite its power, Franklin is currently forecast to miss any inhabited areas and head out to sea.
Brian K. Sullivan