Last year’s Hurricane Ian was a state-altering storm, a Category 4 monster that killed more than 150 and cost Florida more than $109 billion in damage.
This year, Hurricane Idalia also reached the vicious Category 4 stage before slamming into the state as a strong Category 3. But on the whole, its legacy in Florida will be a lot different from Ian’s.
Idalia made landfall in the Big Bend’s rural Taylor County, a far less populated region than the Fort Myers area. A full accounting of its damage is a long way off, but as of Friday, state officials had attributed only one Florida death to the hurricane, a traffic fatality in Alachua County. And one firm said Friday that insured losses across the Southeast may hit $5 billion — again, well short of the damage caused by Ian.
That’s not to say Idalia won’t impact the way Florida deals with hurricanes. It happens with every major storm — and the state’s seen a few of those lately, not just Idalia and Ian, but also Michael (2018) and Irma (2017).
“Four events in six years tends to bring it to the forefront of the conversation,” said Angie Lindsey, coordinator of the Florida Extension Disaster Education Network at the University of Florida. “It’s so important to use these events as teaching tools so that we go back and tweak what we need to. What have we learned that we can apply for next time?”
Here are five early takeaways from Hurricane Idalia.
1. The specter of Ian loomed large.
Hurricane Ian wasn’t just a traumatic disaster, but a visual one, leaving bridges ripped apart and boats flung far from their docks.
State officials seem to think Ian’s wrath made many take Idalia more seriously.
“The governor and I really hit that hard: evacuate, evacuate, evacuate,” Kevin Guthrie, head of Florida’s Department of Emergency Management, said Thursday. “It seems that people have heeded that call, and I’m grateful for that.”
Work in communities still recovering from Ian made communication about this year’s storm a little easier, Lindsey said. Her team was in contact with farmers and agriculture industry leaders before and after Idalia hit, and those conversations helped everyone be ready for the aftermath.
“I feel like we were prepared to immediately kind of go into action after the storm passed on Wednesday,” she said.
Ian’s destruction may also play a role in how homeowners rebuild from Idalia. This year, Florida passed legislation guiding how insurers must handle damage claims from hurricane victims, and stiffening penalties on those who don’t pay out. Before the storm even hit, Gov. Ron DeSantis warned insurance companies to comply.
“We’re going to be watching,” he said Monday. “We want to make people whole who pay for this service.”
2. A win for science: the storm behaved as expected.
Anticipating a storm’s eventual landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast is notoriously tricky. Any slight shift in a storm’s angle can mean a sizable difference in its eventual landfall.
In the case of Idalia, the forecast cone, which shows the most likely track of the center of the storm, narrowed day by day until Wednesday, when it barreled into the Big Bend region. Each time, that area was firmly in the National Hurricane Center’s cone.
”It was just a great forecast, and hats off to them,” said Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer for Yale Climate Connections.
Forecasters also anticipated Idalia would rapidly intensify due to warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, and it did just that. And with the storm’s eye well off the Tampa Bay coast, meteorologists said the region’s greatest threat would come from storm surge pushing rivers, lakes and tides several feet higher than normal. That, too, is what happened.
“In general for the bay, everything that was forecast — those numbers look like it panned out pretty well,” said Rick Davis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Center’s Tampa Bay office.
Davis said the more accurate predictions were due to much better hurricane technology. In June, the National Hurricane Center began using the Hurricane Analysis and Forecast System to help predict tropical storm activity. It was added alongside an older system first used in 2019.
”A lot of science has gone into the hurricane center’s forecasting,” Davis said. “It’s actually a lot better and higher resolution than it had been 20 or 30 years ago.”
3. It doesn’t take a direct hit for Tampa Bay to see major damage — and climate change will only make it worse.
Experts have known for years that the Tampa Bay area was among the state’s most susceptible to storm surge. A 2022 Tampa Bay Times analysis showed how vulnerable communities like Apollo Beach, Oldsmar and St. Petersburg’s Shore Acres would be to flooding from a smaller storm, much less a Category 3 or 4.
Sure enough, that’s what happened with Idalia. Despite the storm’s center remaining about 100 miles from Tampa Bay, those coastal areas — and many others — are still reeling from flooding.
If the storm’s angle changed even slightly, Henson said, it wouldn’t have taken much for Idalia to become an even more serious flood threat.
”Had Idalia organized a little sooner and intensified, gotten off to a rolling start, it could have easily been a 4, a strong 4,” Henson said. “And if you combine that with coming in near Tampa, it could have been far, far worse. But once again, Tampa has dodged a seemingly endless stream of bullets.”
Someday that could change. As climate change leads to sea-level rise and record-high gulf and ocean temperatures, hurricanes can become more dangerous more quickly. Idalia, for instance, entered the warm Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm. Barely 24 hours later, it was a Category 4 hurricane.
“There is increasing evidence that rapid intensification is happening more often in our warming climate,” Henson said. “More generally, as oceans get warmer, they can support more intense hurricanes when the right atmospheric factors are in place.”
4. Expect to hear a lot more about storm damage mitigation.
In communities near Idalia’s landfall, like Cedar Key and Horseshoe Beach, elevated homes fared much better than those on the ground. The same was true in Tampa Bay, where even in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, some residents fared better than others.
State leaders say Florida’s building codes, last updated in 2021, kept many buildings standing during Idalia, particularly those on stilts and those with metal roofs.
“This stuff does work,” DeSantis said Thursday. “You look at Horseshoe Beach, most of these homes are very outdated. And so, yeah, there was a lot of damage, but there was also homes that weathered it because of how they were built. So they got massive storm surge, but it all went underneath the living area, and so they’re going to end up, their homes are going to be fine.”
In November, the state created the My Safe Florida Home program, designed to give homeowners up to $10,000 to upgrade their doors, windows, garage doors and other elements susceptible to storm damage. Residents can also apply for federal grants to help elevate their homes, making them better equipped to escape storm surge unscathed.
In Idalia’s immediate aftermath, both DeSantis and Guthrie, with the state’s Division of Emergency Management, urged Floridians to take advantage of such programs, saying this storm was proof that certain upgrades can make a major difference.
“It is one of the best programs that we have in our toolkit,” Guthrie said. “We’re going to try to make the mitigation fund bankrupt.”
5. DeSantis can, in fact, change his tone.
Prior to Idalia, DeSantis was planning to spend Monday at a presidential campaign event at a golf club in Kershaw, South Carolina. Instead, he was up early that morning for briefings at the state’s emergency operations center, check-ins with power company executives and even a call with President Joe Biden — a man about whom he’d said, only days earlier, “We’re going to run him ragged around this country.”
What’s notable isn’t that DeSantis did the job for which he was elected. It’s how quickly he pivoted from campaign bullet points about drag shows and “woke” culture and toward straightforward talk about storm preparedness and recovery.
Since July, the DeSantis campaign had been working on a tonal reboot amid polling and financial struggles, steering the conversation from the governor’s harsh messaging and awkward public personality to a more accessible and family-friendly space. It may be that what he really needed was to get back to work in Tallahassee, working closely with emergency officials and leading frequent news briefings in the face of impending disaster.
As a Wall Street Journal editorial lauding his hurricane leadership put it: “If he can do the executive job, maybe his skill at small talk is immaterial.”
Even when his chief rival in the race, former President Donald Trump, called him out on social media over Florida’s high utility and insurance costs, DeSantis declined to get into it.
“It’s not my concern,” DeSantis said. “My concern is protecting the people of Florida, being ready to go. And we’ve done that.”
Times staff writer Jack Prator contributed to this story.
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