FLORIDA’S GULF COAST (WSVN) — Hurricane Idalia made landfall at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday in Florida’s Big Bend area and as fierce storm surge inundated the region, Florida’s Gulf Coast has experienced flooding that has prompted road closures and mandatory evacuations.
The National Weather Service’s latest advisory has painted a dire picture for Florida’s Big Bend area, predicting a surge ranging from 12 to 16 feet in height. This forecast comes as residents and officials are sounding the alarm about the potentially catastrophic flooding that could ravage coastal communities.
On Wednesday morning, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a news conference in Tallahassee addressing the vicious storm and the safety of residents.
“Do not go outside in the midst of this storm,” he announced. “If it’s calm where you are, it may be because you’re in the eye of the storm, and those conditions can change very quickly. Hunker down, it’s a powerful storm.”
In Pinellas County, the intensity of the storm surge was evident overnight, particularly along the Gulf Coast. Streets along Venice were left damaged, along with a small local business with its roof torn off.
St. Pete Beach experienced hazardous conditions with water levels surging as high as 4 feet, forcing road closures and creating treacherous situations for residents and travelers.
South of Madeira Beach, officials are issuing warnings to locals, urging them not to venture onto flooded roadways in Treasure Island.
The area has been placed under a mandatory evacuation order as authorities emphasized the need for residents to heed evacuation orders and not underestimate the potential dangers that the storm surge brings.
Chief Clint Belk of the Madeira Beach Fire Department shared the challenges his team faced during a fully involved structure fire, made even more difficult due to the storm’s conditions.
“About 2:30 this morning, we had a fully involved structure fire,” Chief Belk conveyed. “We could not get to it; it was very difficult to get to it. When they got the call, the house was already fully involved. By the time they got there, it was already 50 minutes into this call. Normally, it would have taken us 15 minutes, but the fact they had to stop so far away to avoid the flood waters and then lay 1,000 feet of hose to get to the hydrant and then another 1,000 feet to get to the structure. I mean, that’s manpower and it’s time-consuming. They’ve been working 24 straight hours.”
Officials are unequivocal in their warning: do not underestimate the dangers that Hurricane Idalia brings with it.
Early Wednesday, the National Weather Service has issued predictions that the surge along Florida’s Big Bend area could reach an astonishing 12 to 16 feet. For context, last year’s Hurricane Ian brought storm surges of 10 to 15 feet to Lee County.
After the storm swept through Florida, flooding wreaked havoc on the Tampa Bay area as other parts of the Gulf Coast saw up to 16 feet of storm surges.
Fire rescue crews spent late nights in residential areas, including a mobile home park in St. Petersburg as they rescued at least one person. Water was seen several feet high along the mobile homes, while vehicles sat submerged underwater.
A few miles away, in Gulf Port, video footage showed a casino flooded while several people attempted to navigate through the parking lot swamp. Over in St. Pete’s Beach, walkable paths turned into rivers.
A traffic camera in Tampa Bay captured the waters from the surrounding coast lapping onto Interstate 75.
Public officials said they hoped residents would not stay after they announced an evacuation along Gulf Coast cities.
“We do have some residents who feel like the Tampa Bay area has a bubble over it,” said Hillsborough County Fire Rescue Safety Chief and Public Information Officer Rob Herrin “Hopefully, this is enough to keep everybody safe but get their attention so that if anything in the future happens again, they’ll need some warnings and, and go ahead and evacuate.”
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor spoke about the impact and the future of the community.
“We have extensive flooding along our coast,” she said. We have about 100 and 26 miles of waterfront land here in Tampa and that is only going to rise. We’re at low tide, the tide’s coming in. We expect that king high tide around noon to one and that’s going to bring in several additional feet of water.”
In Cedar Key, a small island town, the situation grew increasingly dire. Damaging winds and a catastrophic flood surge are anticipated, leading to a mandatory evacuation order.
While most residents heeded the call to evacuate, a few chose to remain behind, including some elderly individuals. The storm’s potential for an 8 to 12-foot surge makes this decision incredibly perilous.
Michael Bobbit, a resident who opted to stay behind, is preparing for a challenge once the storm subsides.
“I think within the next hour or two we’ll be cut off,” he explained. “I think the road and bridge coming into Cedar Key will be impassable.”
He continued to mention that the water continued to rise as time passed.
“I’m at one of the highest points of elevation of the island in a sturdy structure, I’m safe here,” he explained, “But I think the vast majority of our buildings are going to be inundated over the next hour or two.”
He planned to participate in rescue efforts once conditions allow. Bobbit said he has boats staged and ready where he can get to them estimating fewer than 100 people actually stayed on the island.
“Already our roads are being swallowed up,” he said. “I stayed behind to help some of the older and infirmed people who refused to leave.”
The Hurricane Center’s director ominously remarked that surviving Idalia’s storm surge would prove “difficult.” As emergency teams work tirelessly to prepare for the impact and provide assistance, residents are urged to remain vigilant and heed all evacuation orders.
“Most people did heed the warning, but there were some that that’s just what they wanted to do,” said Gov. DeSantis. “So when this passes, there will be rescue efforts done as need be. Hopefully, they knew what they were doing and have a spot, because it’s potentially very hazardous.”
The storm is now said to be the most powerful storm to make landfall in the Big Bend region in the past 125 years.
Several closures are in place, including in Gainesville. Classes at the University of Florida have also been canceled. The Tampa International Airport and the Tallahassee Airport are also closed.
As Hurricane Idalia barrels through the state, 49 Florida counties are under a state of emergency. State officials said 5,500 National Guard troops have been deployed to help the affected areas.
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