Hurricane Idalia was already strengthening in the warm waters of the Gulf on Tuesday. (Courtesy of National Hurricane Center/TNS)

MIAMI — It’s “crunch time” for Florida as it braces for Hurricane Idalia’s impact — a possibly catastrophic storm not seen in more than a century, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday. It nears Category 3 strength as it marches toward the state’s Gulf Coast.

“If you are there when that hits, it is going to be very difficult to survive that,” DeSantis said.

The latest National Hurricane Center forecast at 8 p.m. Eastern time still tracked Idalia making landfall in the Big Bend area on Wednesday morning as a dangerous major storm.

A Hurricane Hunter aircraft found Idalia to already have maximum sustained winds of near 105 mph, just 6 mph shy of being classified a Category 3 — which should happen sometime Tuesday night.

Near its powerful core, sustained winds could hit 115 mph, a slight downtick from earlier projections, and storm surge could reach up to 15 feet.

The flooding threat extended far beyond the cone of concern for high winds. From Apalachicola to the Florida Keys, much of the west coast remained blanketed with storm surge and hurricane warnings, and officials warned that Idalia’s rain, tornadoes and surge will be felt far from the strike zone. The densely populated Tampa Bay region, for instance, was facing a record 4 to 7 feet of surge. Forecasters also cautioned that the track could still shift and some models took the powerful eye further north, closer to the state capital of Tallahassee.

DeSantis urged Floridians to prepare for a major hurricane that will bring with it serious damage.

“We are going to be hit by a major hurricane,” he said in a Tuesday night news conference. “The eye will arrive onshore sometime tomorrow morning most likely and it is going to have major impacts, particular in Florida’s Big Bend region.”

He emphasized that a storm of this magnitude — bringing what officials are calling “greatly concerning” storm surge — hasn’t made landfall in the Big Bend since the late 1800s.

At this point, there is growing certainty of a landfall in the Taylor, Dixie or Levy County region, which has largely been untested by a major storm. The Tallahassee office of the National Weather Service underlined that in a morning forecast discussion post.

“To put this system into the historical context, there are NO major hurricanes in the historical data set going back to 1851 that have tracked into Apalachee Bay. None. Don’t mess around with this,” forecasters wrote.

Evacuations were already underway in 27 counties, and major theme parks, schools, airports and universities have closed in anticipation of Idalia’s arrival.

Earlier in the day, Desantis pleaded for residents to follow evacuation orders and keep themselves and their families safe.

“By the time we get to the end of tonight, you’re gonna see some nasty weather,” DeSantis said in a morning news conference. “Be warned about that and do what you need to do right now to keep yourself and your family safe.”

He ran through numbers to emphasize the state’s preparation — 55,000 national guardsmen ready, 42,000 gallons of fuel and 25,000 linemen already stationed.

In Cedar Key, police were knocking on doors to convince residents to evacuate, like 28-year-old Carol Carlin, who spent the morning packing clothes at the shop her family has owned for about 13 years, Island Trading Post.

“If you look at it from the outside, it’s not the best,” she said during a brief break from packing. “This whole town is very, very old, so a lot of the infrastructure that’s on Second Street … it’s been there for 100-plus years. I’m just really worried it might not be the same when we get back.”

Carlin said many are leaving the tiny Gulf Coast town with a population less than 700. But a friend has insisted on staying on the island.

“He said his house is rated for a Category 5 storm, but is it?” she said, with a furrowed, dripping brow. “It’s never been tested.”

Storm surge risk grows

The first stages of Idalia’s eye was visible on satellite Tuesday afternoon, the center of a dangerous storm growing more powerful by the hour. Yet the eye developed later than forecasters initially expected, which could help shorten the time it has to strengthen over the low shear and hot water conditions in the Gulf of Mexico as it closes in on Florida’s Big Bend area.

In the earlier 5 p.m. update, the hurricane center slightly backed down from its wind speed predictions for Idalia’s landfall, but forecasters said that was simply because the storm was moving even faster than expected. The latest prediction called for 115 mph maximum sustained winds at landfall, still a Category 3 storm.

“It is imperative to realize that Idalia is expected to continue strengthening beyond that time, possibly close to the (125 mph) shown in the previous forecast, before the center reaches land,” forecasters warned.

The final hours before Idalia makes landfall include a track over some of the warmest water in the Gulf, where sea surface temperatures are nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

The forecast also shunted the track 20 miles west, the biggest bump in a series of nudges west over the last few days that closely follows many storm models. By Tuesday afternoon, there was growing certainty in an impact in the crook of the state, near Cedar Key or Steinhatchee, and the chances of an early hook east had decreased — but not disappeared.

Idalia also picked up the pace on Tuesday, from a leisurely 8 mph speed overnight up to 16 mph, as it sailed north into the Gulf of Mexico. Propelled by helpful steering winds, the storm was expected to stay fast as it rockets across the northern half of the state Wednesday and Thursday.

While that might keep the potential for flooding rain down, the risk of storm surge is especially high for this storm. It’s the No. 1 killer in hurricanes and the reason for the evacuation orders called up and down the coast.

Coastal spots in Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties were expected to see the worst as of the Tuesday morning forecast — 10 to 15 feet of surge above ground level.

“We’re going to have destructive wave action on top of that that can actually destroy homes and buildings and make this a place that is difficult to survive,” Michael Brennan, director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a Tuesday morning video update.

South Florida felt the first bands of Idalia’s gusty winds Tuesday afternoon in the Keys, which are also expected to see a couple of feet of storm surge. Miami-Dade and Broward are mostly out of the hot seat, but gusts of strong winds — as well as a couple inches of rain — began Tuesday evening and will continue through Wednesday evening.

Idalia was not expected to be a huge rainmaker, but even a few inches could cause flooding in coastal South Florida, since Wednesday is the first king tide, the annual series of highest tides, of the year.

As of the 8 p.m. update, Hurricane Idalia was about 155 miles west-southwest of Tampa and about 245 miles south of Tallahassee. It was headed north at 16 mph with tropical-storm-force winds extending out up to 160 miles from the center. Hurricane-force winds extended out 25 miles from the center.

Government help on the way

The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in a Tuesday afternoon media conference at the White House, said the agency was prepared to respond to Idalia, including with search and rescue teams.

“They are all ready to pivot to the most impacted areas immediately after the storm,” FEMA Director Deanne Criswell told reporters. “We also have warehouses filled with commodities like food, water, blankets and medical supplies that are ready to rapidly move to the impacted area at the state’s request.”

Criswell said she spoke on the phone with DeSantis on Monday about coordinated state and federal preparations. The governor told Criswell, she said, that he was worried about people taking the storm seriously as well as making sure vulnerable people receive the help they need to evacuate away from the storm’s path.

The American Red Cross has also been readying supplies, said Brad Kieserman, vice president for disaster operations, in a Tuesday afternoon media call. He noted that there are more than 20,000 individual supplies stocked in Jacksonville, 75 vehicles to hand out meals and other supplies and 100,000 shelf-stable meals.

“We have been moving supplies now for over 72 hours,” he said.

Kieserman said the Red Cross has staff placed in several counties, including Volusia, Seminole, Pasco, Hardee, Dixie, Taylor and Columbia Counties, but the plan is to focus on “vulnerable, rural communities” after landfall.

Particularly of concern in some of the counties are elderly and disabled people, said Sherman Gillums Jr., director of FEMA’s office of disability, integration and coordination. Gillums said about 14.5% of the total population of all counties under evacuation orders are disabled, more than 1.5 million people.

Some of those counties with mandatory evacuation orders either do not have special needs shelters or do not have enough space in them for the demand in the county, according to state documents. If that’s the case, Gillums urged anyone to simply go to the nearest shelter to them, which is required to be ADA accessible.

“I would see other shelters as non-options for people with disabilities,” he said.

Kieserman, with the Red Cross, echoed Gillums and said Floridians should get to safety first, then call the Red Cross and ask for additional help meeting their needs if the current shelter does not provide it.

“Don’t wait to get out of the path of the storm, we can always relocate later,” he said.

Alex Harris, Joey Flechas and Devoun Cetoute

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