Hurricane Idalia’s massive storm surge tore through Florida’s Big Bend on Wednesday, likely flooding thousands of homes.
The surge, roughly 10 feet deep, arrived just after sunrise. Idalia’s landfall near Keaton Beach as a Category 3 hurricane was just days removed from its formation off the Yucatán Peninsula, 600 miles away.
The storm had traveled across the Gulf of Mexico, feasting on nearly record-hot water that fueled its explosive growth. The strengthening hurricane sped toward Florida’s west coast, where shallow depths and flat land are ripe for destructive flooding.
Climate change will make such rapid intensification only more likely.
Idalia’s worst flooding spanned small Florida towns — across Taylor, Dixie and Levy counties — that are separated by wildlife refuges and secluded beaches.
Still, more than 2,000 buildings along the Big Bend were in areas projected to experience potentially catastrophic flooding, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of forecast data and building footprints found.
While the area’s sparse population means the cost of Idalia’s devastation will pale in comparison to damage caused by hurricanes that hit big cities, data shows that Big Bend communities are facing incredible loss — homes, hotels and popular restaurants all destroyed.
The Times analysis included places that National Hurricane Center estimates just before landfall showed had a 10% chance of receiving at least 6 feet of flooding above ground. Many of these places had a 1-in-10 chance of receiving 9 feet of flooding or more. The hurricane center does not provide estimated minimum flood levels.
Gauges that measure water levels in the gulf and nearby rivers, including the Steinhatchee and Suwannee, indicate storm surge climbed up to about 10 feet, which is in line with what was forecast. Actual flood heights can remain unclear for days after a storm hits.
But what is clear from data, videos and on-the-ground reporting: Idalia hit these small towns hard.
A town at the southeastern tip of Taylor County, Steinhatchee every summer welcomes Floridians, who flock to the area to go scalloping.
About 600 people live there full time, half of whom are 68 or older.
Taylor issued mandatory evacuation orders for all coastal residents and those countywide living in mobile homes and trailers.
Steinhatchee has many people in such housing: 1 in 3 residences in town is a mobile home.
Idalia made landfall less than 20 miles away. Surge swept into the mouth of the Steinhatchee River, which curls around the town, just before 8 a.m. Soon after, a gauge 2 miles upstream showed peak water levels at just over 9.5 feet.
On the west side of Steinhatchee, nearly every building within four blocks of the river — about 150 structures, including the well-known Roy’s Restaurant — was on land dead set for devastating floods, based on the hurricane center’s data. Some of these structures were elevated on stilts, which could limit damage.
The river posed dangerous flooding for those farther east, as well. Reporters noticed a Bible from the town’s First Baptist Church, which is a mile and a half from the gulf, floating down the road.
Estimates projected deep water as far east as the Capt. Chad Allen Reed Sr. Memorial Bridge, the only road to the neighboring town of Jena.
A resident talking to a local TV news station placed his hand shoulder-high on his home’s window.
“Water up to here,” he described.
In Horseshoe Beach, a tiny residential town known for its fishing heritage, many waterside homes are perched on tall stilts. Idalia made landfall about 30 miles west, but storm surge still reached them, destroying walls, windows and doors in its wake.
The town sits on the western edge of Dixie County and has more than 200 residential properties. Many could be vacant, as the town’s population has declined over the last decade.
Dixie mandated evacuations for all those in coastal areas, as well as those countywide in mobile and manufactured homes.
All of Horseshoe Beach was projected to see disastrous flooding. Idalia was forecast to bring more than 9 feet of storm surge through the heart of town, with some inland areas predicted to receive slightly lower surges.
Even hours after landfall, the flood levels remained high.
“Water tower’s 3 foot deep under seawater,” a man told Times reporters.
Roads were completely submerged. Parts of Main Street, which runs through the center of town, were left covered in sand after the tide receded. Dozens of ground-level buildings were ripped from their foundations or completely flattened by the rush of water.
On another street, an entire mobile home washed into the middle of the road. Few homes were spared of damage. The town’s major draw, the marina, appeared hollowed out by the pounding surf.
More than 50 miles from Idalia’s landfall lies Cedar Key, a set of islands jetting 3 miles into the gulf. The city is the largest community to face Idalia’s brutal surge, and as a tourist center, it’s the most well-known.
It’s also the luckiest.
The town of about 900 people is a historic port community that bills itself as “a place where time stands still.” It was largely spared from significant destruction. Still, dozens of buildings are in areas that could have undergone serious flooding, based on hurricane center forecasts.
“It looked like the ocean just taking over our little town,” one resident described to Times reporters outside Duncan’s on the Gulf. The seafood restaurant, which was heavily damaged by the flood, is on the key’s southeastern tip and next to the fishing pier.
Five blocks away, another resident had recorded waves lapping halfway up windows on a white-and-teal, one-story hotel. The man narrated the video, shared with the Weather Channel.
“Rest in peace, Faraway Inn,” he said.
Levy County — also home to the communities of Williston and Bronson — ordered a mandatory evacuation for coastal areas including Cedar Key, but the city’s mayor estimated 100 people stayed anyway.
Cedar Key is hilly for Florida — Hodgson Hill reaches 37 feet above sea level — and some residents inland felt safe enough to ride out the storm. But damage closer to the water surrounded them.
“It hurts to see people lose,” one resident said.
Times staff writers Max Chesnes, Lauren Peace, Zachary T. Sampson and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.
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