ST. PETERSBURG — Less than a year after one of the strongest hurricanes ever to strike the United States slammed into southwest Florida, the state is bracing for life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds again as early as Tuesday.
The National Hurricane Center placed portions of Florida’s Panhandle and Gulf Coast, including the Tampa Bay area, under a hurricane and storm surge watch Sunday evening as Tropical Storm Idalia continued to creep into the record-hot Gulf of Mexico.
Idalia — pronounced “ee-DAL-ya” — moved slowly throughout the weekend, bringing heavy rain to portions of western Cuba and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Slow and possibly erratic motion was expected overnight, and the storm was expected to strengthen into a Category 2 hurricane with 100-mph winds over the eastern Gulf of Mexico by early Tuesday, the center said.
The storm is expected to make landfall between Panama City and Tampa Bay, striking Florida’s Gulf Coast on Tuesday night into Wednesday, forecasters said. The storm was not expected to menace southwest Florida, where deadly Hurricane Ian struck last September.
A day after declaring a state of emergency for 33 Florida counties, Gov. Ron DeSantis stressed the continued precariousness of the storm’s path during a Sunday news conference.
“Floridians along our Gulf Coast should be vigilant even if you’re currently outside the cone,” he said from the state’s Emergency Operations Center, warning of possible fuel disruptions, power failures and evacuation orders.
Jamie Rhome, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center, said in an update on Sunday that residents in the Tampa Bay area should expect strong winds by Tuesday morning, adding that storm preparations should be completed by Monday night.
“This portion of the Florida peninsula is very storm-surge vulnerable,” he said. “It will not take a strong system or a direct hit to produce a significant storm surge.”
Tropical Storm Idalia began as a tropical depression that formed Saturday evening. Projections on Sunday evening suggested the most likely spot for a landfall would be around the Big Bend of Florida. Shifts in the forecast track, however, are possible and storm damage can occur hundreds of miles from the eye.
“This one could sneak up on you quickly,” Mark Luther, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, said Sunday.
Tampa Bay area governments and school systems started making plans over the weekend.
In Hernando County, officials announced shelter openings and voluntary evacuation orders for all areas west of U.S. 19. Residents living in coastal and low-lying areas, as well as manufactured homes countywide, are included.
Pinellas County commissioners are convening an emergency public meeting Monday morning to consider a declaration of a state of local emergency. Pasco County commissioners are, too.
As of Sunday evening, schools remained set to open throughout Tampa Bay except in Hernando County, where classes are canceled Monday through Wednesday, with several schools set to be used as shelters for residents.
As officials prepared, Idalia’s overall circulation on Sunday was weak but expansive, with maximum sustained winds near 40 mph and higher gusts. Tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 70 miles from the center.
The storm’s ultimate intensity will depend on how quickly it can organize near the Mexican coast and how much wind shear, which occurs when winds blow in different directions or at varied speeds, impedes its circulation.
“If it comes anywhere close to Tampa Bay, we’re going to have some significant storm surge flooding and rainfall flooding,” Luther said, adding he is making hotel reservations for Tuesday evening in case he has to leave his Pinellas County home.
Tampa Bay could face a surge of 3-5 feet if the peak surge occurs at the time of high tide, according to the hurricane center.
The Sunshine State is at greatest risk for impacts from surge, flooding rains, destructive winds and tornadoes, but the storm could also deliver strong winds, heavy rain and a risk of flooding elsewhere in the Southeast by Wednesday, including Georgia and the Carolinas, forecasters said.
Across parts of western Florida, that rain could quench a long drought that has persisted this summer.
“Thankfully, the ground is fairly dry and rivers, for now, are low so we can handle some widespread heavy rain,” Josh Linker, a meteorologist with Spectrum Bay News 9, said in an update around noon Sunday.
Meanwhile, water temperatures across the Gulf of Mexico support intensification. Hurricanes gather their strength from the heat stored in ocean waters. The warmer the surface temperature of the sea, the more fuel storms have to feed on.
“There’s a notable risk of rapid intensification while the system moves across the record warm eastern and northeastern Gulf of Mexico,” the hurricane center cautioned Sunday morning.
Residents across the region spent their weekend scooping up water from stores and looking for sandbags, as local and state officials issued measured pleas for preparedness.
The weekend also marked the beginning of Florida’s sales tax holiday on hurricane supplies, an opportunity for people to save money on batteries, flashlights, power banks, generators and other storm prep essentials. The tax break lasts until Sept. 8.
Florida officials also warned of a “potentially widespread fuel contamination” Sunday that may have resulted in people getting fuel from some Florida gas stations that could harm or disable their engines just as Tropical Storm Idalia may put residents on the road or in search of gas to power their generators.
The west coast of Florida has been no stranger to hurricanes in the past several years. Hurricane Ian in 2022 and Hurricane Michael in 2018 caused extensive damage from strong winds and storm surge after moving out of the Caribbean and rapidly intensifying in the Gulf of Mexico before striking Florida as major hurricanes.
Michael hit the Panhandle, while Ian devastated the southwestern edge of the state, where recovery remains an ongoing effort.
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