Hurricane Idalia plowed into Florida’s Big Bend area early Wednesday as a powerful Category 3 storm, buzzing a violent path through the Nature Coast and leaving hundreds of acres of Gulf Coast shoreline underwater.
Barely 24 hours after reaching hurricane strength, Idalia briefly spiked as a Category 4 before making landfall around 7:45 a.m. near Keaton Beach, a quiet, marshy area in Taylor County, about 90 minutes southeast of Tallahassee.
In Dixie County’s Horseshoe Beach, homes were destroyed, fridges and couches swept away. Residents of Cedar Key in Levy County emerged from homes flooded by what appeared to be a double-digit storm surge. As far south as Crystal River, Citrus County deputies had blocked multiple roadways as the sun fell Wednesday, rerouting traffic due to high water. By day’s end, Idalia had carved through three states, arriving in South Carolina as a stout tropical storm.
While Tampa Bay was spared the worst of Idalia’s winds, it still saw a generational storm surge. Rivers, lakes and bay waters rose as much as 6 feet above normal in some spots, according to the National Weather Service, reaching highs not seen since Hurricane Elena 38 years ago.
But unlike last year’s Hurricane Ian, which killed about 150 people and caused $109 billion in damage, Idalia might not go down as one of the worst ever to hit the state.
It helped that the state’s Big Bend is sparsely populated and that its residents largely seemed to heed evacuation orders, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
“The panicked phone calls of people calling, whose homes were filling up with water, was something that was very, very ominous, and that happened relatively early on when the surge first started happening,” DeSantis said of Ian. ”It’s been different than what they were finding with Hurricane Ian, and that’s obviously welcomed news.”
DeSantis said state police were investigating at least one unconfirmed death, a traffic accident possibly caused by the hurricane. Search and rescue teams had yet to find anyone dead in their homes, and there are no outstanding missing persons reports, said Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie.
By 6:30 p.m., more than 220,000 Florida customers were without electricity, according to outage data from PowerOutage.us. That includes 97% of customers in Taylor County, where the storm made landfall; and nearly all customers in nearby Suwannee, Madison and Jefferson counties. Most customers tracked in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties had regained power by Wednesday afternoon, data showed.
But for those hardest hit by flooding, the recovery is just beginning.
In Hernando County’s flooded Weeki Wachee Gardens, where waters surged to the waist, debris and garbage cans floated down the road as residents cleared furniture and photos from their stilted, two-story homes.
“I don’t know where to start,” said Deanna Knapp, 53, surveying the scene. “It’s a big, big mess.”
In Tarpon Springs, Dodecanese Boulevard, home to the well-known Sponge Docks, was inundated with a knee-deep deluge. Behind the Gulfport Casino, a large sailboat sat against a dock after coming loose from its mooring. In Tampa’s Seminole Heights and Lowry Park, water from the Hillsborough River covered pedestrian bridges and sent spilled garbage bobbing in the muck.
For those who stayed in low-lying or waterfront areas, the flooding was worse than any wind.
Barb Schueler, 55, rode out the storm in her first-floor apartment at the Coronado in Pass-a-Grille. By mid-morning, she and her boyfriend were wringing out “towels, sheets, every piece of clothing we have,” trying to soak up the saltwater seeping under the 20 sandbags and pieces of plywood propped against their door.
“We just stayed to defend our home, and I’m glad we did,” she said. “I don’t know if it was the smartest move, but we saved this apartment and everything in it.”
In St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres neighborhood, emergency crews had rescued some 75 people by Wednesday afternoon, according to an Instagram post by the city. Among them: a homeowner in a burning house surrounded by floodwater. Crews used small boats to get to the home and bring the resident to safety, then sent special teams and equipment to fight the fire.
“It’s a parade of people leaving their homes. Proud people, with their kids. This is the highest it’s been in 50 years,” said Scott Straughn, 65, who spent the day watching lower-ground neighbors evacuate from 40th Avenue Northeast, where his house sits. “All my neighbors are saying the same thing. And they’re crying inside their homes — if they’re the fortunate ones.”
Brian McCarty, 55, evacuated from his home in Hudson’s Sea Ranch on the Gulf community Tuesday, ahead of the storm. He returned Wednesday to find his front door jammed by a 100-pound plant that had floated across the living room, blocking the entrance.
“It’s done,” McCarty said, surveying the damage from at least a foot of flooding. “It’s all gone — we’ll need new furniture, everything.”
At the Twin City mobile home park off Gandy Boulevard in St. Petersburg, 19-year-old Bruce Roy used a paddleboard to navigate neighbors to their homes. Many of the park’s residents are older or disabled, factors that can hinder evacuation efforts and make moving an even steeper hurdle.
To see what had become of her home for nearly a decade, Tabitha Vavrick, 56, took her perch on Roy’s paddleboard. This was her fourth time dealing with a storm like this. Last time, she’d lost her car.
“This is it for us,” she said, tears welling. “We’re going back to Huntsville.”
Others who’ve seen deadly storms miss Tampa Bay over the years once again acknowledged the region’s relative good luck. At O’Maddy’s Bar & Grille in Gulfport, owner Joe Guenther stayed up all night, anticipating the worst.
“All I could think was, is it going to turn?” he said. “Not seeing it take a right was definitely a blessing.”
In Oldsmar, the bay water spread like a sheet across R.E. Oldsmar Park and Shore Drive, about 50 yards or so. By late morning, it had receded into the bay about two blocks over, just enough to allow people to walk out on the park’s pier.
“This is the worst I remember it being,” said Keith Knuth, 48, who has lived across from the park for seven years in a house his grandmother previously resided in for 40. “But I’m sure it’ll be worse one day.”
Statewide, the full scope of Idalia’s wreckage was unknown Wednesday night.
National Guard members and Florida transportation officials cleared all bridges in the state’s affected areas, Guthrie said, but search and rescue operations may take longer than with Hurricane Ian, as the Big Bend region is much more rural than Fort Myers. Houses are farther apart, Guthrie said, and there are more obstacles in the roads.
“We haven’t had a storm take this path at this level since the 1890s, to hit this part of Florida,” DeSantis said. “There’s parts of Florida that have had these things happen, and they’ve built up infrastructure in response to it. Well, this part of the state hasn’t necessarily seen a storm like this in quite some time, so that’s just going to present challenges.”
Officials had feared the worst for Tallahassee, which has never in recorded history seen a major hurricane enter Apalachee Bay. Idalia veered east of the city, bringing heavy rain and gusts up to 53 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
One famous building that sustained damage: The Governor’s Mansion. First lady Casey DeSantis said on social media that a 100-year-old oak tree fell on the mansion while she and their children were at home, “but thankfully no one was injured.”
The governor spoke during the day with President Joe Biden, a frequent target on DeSantis’ presidential election campaign trail. The White House has directed 1,500 federal employees, including 540 search-and-rescue workers, to assist with recovery efforts.
“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest this is not about politics, this is about taking care of the people of his state,” Biden said.
While the worst of Idalia’s surge is behind Tampa Bay, there was still risk of flooding along rivers and low-lying coastal areas overnight Wednesday, said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Tampa Bay office.
At the Alafia River, where flooding neared 7 feet, levels had returned to about 2½ feet in the evening.
”If we get too much rain, that could be some quick flooding of a river,” Davis said. “So we still have some rain to deal with, but the other impacts from Idalia are well to our north.”
Late in the day, as Idalia swept past south Georgia, Tampa Bay cities and communities seemed ready to move on. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties lifted evacuation orders. Bridges reopened, as did access to the gulf beaches.
Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando schools were set to reopen Thursday, as were most colleges, including Hillsborough Community College, the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus. Other colleges, including USF-St. Petersburg and Pasco-Hernando State College, would stay closed.
Transit authorities said bus and streetcar service would resume Thursday. Tampa International Airport, which sustained “minimal damage,” reopened for arriving flights Wednesday afternoon and expected to resume full service Thursday.
On Wednesday afternoon, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor ventured out of the city’s emergency operations center to survey Idalia’s impact, touring Bayshore Boulevard and other flooded streets in a black Suburban.
“The worst of it is over for us,” she said.
Castor opened her phone and clicked the weather app. The water, she read, would soon recede.
Times staff writers Bethany Barnes, Bernadette Berdychowski, C.T. Bowen, Graham Brink, Sue Carlton, Ivy Ceballo, Hannah Critchfield, Lane DeGregory, Jack Evans, Helen Freund, Justin Garcia, Olivia George, Jennifer Glenfield, Paul Guzzo, Ian Hodgson, Divya Kumar, Emily L. Mahoney, Tony Marrero, Tracey McManus, Lawrence Mower, Michaela Mulligan, Christopher O’Donnell, Sam Ogozalek, Lauren Peace, Jack Prator, Zachary T. Sampson, Teghan Simonton, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Christopher Spata, Langston Taylor, Natalie Weber and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press and McClatchy.
• • •