Key to Hurricane Idalia’s low death toll? Floridians heeded evacuation warnings.

Hurricane Ian’s wrath last year helped inform the decision of residents to leave.
Storm surge from Hurricane Idalia floods Athens Street in Tarpon Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023.
Storm surge from Hurricane Idalia floods Athens Street in Tarpon Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 31

Hurricane Idalia brought record-high winds and water to a corner of the state that is perhaps least prepared for it. The images of the ferocity of the winds and the devastation of the water are jaw-dropping, as are the tales of those who stayed behind to witness it.

And yet, by two crucial markers, Idalia’s impact was not as bad as others have been in the storm-plagued state. Most importantly, the death toll of the storm remains — officially — at zero. Two men died in car accidents during some of Idalia’s rain bands, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said that after a full day of search and rescue missions, officials have not yet chalked any deaths up to the storm.

“That is probably something that most people would not have bet on four or five days ago, knowing how strong the storm was going to be,” he said in a Thursday morning news conference.

DeSantis praised local officials and citizens for their work on evacuating the most dangerous zones, which he credited for saving lives.

“The governor and I really hit that hard, evacuate, evacuate, evacuate,” said Kevin Guthrie, head of Florida’s Department of Emergency Management. “It seems that people have heeded that call and I’m grateful for that.”

It was clear that Hurricane Ian’s wrath last year also helped inform the decision of most residents to leave. Charter boat captain Hope Reinke left her stilt home in Horseshoe Beach to ride the storm out in Wellborn further north. She said there was no question she wasn’t going to stay, given the forecasts.

“Staying is stupid,” she said. “That’s pride.”

On Wednesday, as Idalia slashed across north Florida, the state said it knew of only 150 people left behind in two of the counties hardest hit by the storm. By Thursday, Guthrie said, the state had caught up on all 911 calls and rescued nearly everyone who asked for it.

DeSantis also praised the “pretty doggone accurate” forecast from the National Hurricane Center, which warned of a Big Bend landfall days in advance, giving residents plenty of time to get out of harm’s way. In last year’s Hurricane Ian, many residents expected a hit elsewhere and evacuations were called later in the game.

And although Ian and Idalia both came to Florida packing powerful winds, Idalia galloped across the state, lessening the risk of intense storm surge and days upon days of flooding rain that slow-moving storm Ian brought.

The two storms also hit very different corners of the state. Southwest Florida is densely packed, with a population of nearly 1.8 million people. Ian made landfall in Lee County, where more than 780,000 people live. The Big Bend area, on the other hand, is far less populated. The county where Idalia came ashore, Taylor County, has just over 21,000 residents.

“It was in a more populated area, so more opportunity to have destruction,” DeSantis said of Ian.

‘It might as well be billions’

Early estimates suggest the storm’s financial impact was also more muted. Accuweather pegged the total damage and economic loss of Idalia across four states at $18 to $20 billion. That’s a fraction of the cost of Hurricane Ian, Florida’s most expensive storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, Ian cost Florida alone $109 billion in damages and economic losses. The total cost, including other states, was $112.9 billion.

However, residents of the counties in the path of the storm’s buzz saw-like eye are quick to remind people that, to them, a low overall damage rate and death county doesn’t negate their suffering.

Phil Bishop, a Lake City resident who spends weekends in hard-hit Horseshoe Beach, said some of his neighbors in the small fishing town lost their homes.

“It’s not going to be billions of dollars of damage in this community,” he said. “But for the people who live here and lost their homes, it might as well be billions.”

Indeed, officials were quick to stress that Idalia was a powerful storm that brought serious damage to the community. Deanne Criswell, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday that the entire federal government is committed to helping Floridians recover.

“We are going to make sure that we always have the resources here from the federal family to support the current efforts, but also the ongoing recovery efforts that may be needed in these communities that were affected by Hurricane Idalia,” she told reporters.

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