WEATHER

‘This is a life-changing event’: Floridians start an arduous recovery after disastrous Idalia

Sep 1, 2023, 7:00 AM

A backyard of a house is seen flooded in Steinhatchee, Florida, on August 30 after Hurricane Idalia...

A backyard of a house is seen flooded in Steinhatchee, Florida, on August 30 after Hurricane Idalia made landfall as a Category 3 storm. Photo credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

(CNN) — Idalia, now a post-tropical cyclone, is moving further away from North Carolina’s coast after unleashing heavy rains and powerful winds across the Southeast this week and leaving parts of Florida’s west coast with “significant damage.”

It was the most powerful hurricane to slam its Big Bend region in more than a century. Next, Idalia will impact Bermuda this weekend, prompting a Tropical Storm Watch to be issued there, according to the National Hurricane Center.

In its wake, the storm left thousands of homes damaged in Florida – some with shredded walls and roofs, others with murky, waist-high floodwater that officials warn could be dangerous for days to come.

Several deaths have been reported, but the devastation was not as immense as it could have been after the Category 3 hurricane pummeled Florida before tearing through southern Georgia and South Carolina.

Some have credited improved forecasting for spurring residents to evacuate the right places well ahead of time.

The National Hurricane Center issued its first Idalia forecast Saturday – back when the storm was near Cozumel, Mexico – and projected a US landfall within 10 miles of where it actually struck five days later, near Keaton Beach, Florida.

By then, at least 28 Florida counties had issued evacuation orders.

“These forecasts were pretty doggone accurate, particularly compared to what happened with Hurricane Ian – where we went in a matter of 48 hours to potentially having a Big Bend impact, then all of a sudden migrating all the way down to southwest Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday.

A low death toll was “probably something that most people would not have bet on four or five days ago, knowing how strong the storm was going to get,” DeSantis said. “So my hat’s off to the people on the ground there who did a good job.”

Still, dozens of people had to be rescued from perilous floodwaters brought on by the double whammy of torrential rain and walls of seawater crashing onto land.

At least 40 people were rescued overnight, the governor said Thursday, with more rescues expected.

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Here’s the latest on Idalia’s wrath and aftermath:

• Parts of the Southeast are still in danger: “Swells generated by Idalia will affect the southeastern U.S. coast during the next few days and will reach Bermuda on Friday,” the National Hurricane Center said Thursday. “These swells are likely to cause life-threatening surf and rip current conditions.”

• Thousands of homes damaged: Between 4,000 and 6,000 homes have been inundated in Florida’s Pasco County alone, county administrator Mike Carballa said.

• Federal disaster declaration: President Joe Biden has formally declared a major disaster in Florida. “The President’s action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Citrus, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Suwannee, and Taylor,” the White House said in a statement Thursday. Biden said he will visit Florida on Saturday.

• Flood rescues: Emergency crews saved about 150 residents from flooded neighborhoods in Pasco County, the fire-rescue chief said. Some parts of the county – just north of Tampa – saw water surges between 3 and 5 feet.

• Historic water levels: In South Carolina, Charleston Harbor’s water level spiked more than 9 feet, the National Weather Service said. In Florida, Cedar Key, East Bay Tampa, Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg endured record storm surges.

• Thousands in the dark: About 91,000 Florida power customers still had no electricity Thursday night, according to poweroutage.us. But service has been restored to hundreds of thousands of others who lost power during the storm, the governor said.

• Boil water advisory: Some areas in DeSoto, Dixie, Leon, Levy, Marion and Taylor counties in Florida are under boil water notices issued by the state’s health department.

• Some school districts to reopen: At least 30 of 52 school districts that closed ahead of the storm have reopened Thursday, DeSantis said. Eight are scheduled to reopen Friday.

‘It was biblical stuff’

It’s still not clear how much destruction Idalia inflicted as it hurled 125-mph winds and record-breaking storm surge on Florida’s Big Bend area – the nook between the panhandle and peninsula.

“What I saw from the land is a significant amount of flooding damage,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell said in a Thursday news briefing after touring the storm damage. Criswell and DeSantis toured several parts of the impacted areas, including the island city of Cedar Key and Steinhatchee, by ground.

“We were just in Horseshoe Beach, you have an old First Baptist Church there. It had four and a half feet of water, so the place is basically ruined,” the governor said. “You have people losing homes, losing businesses, really, really a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Many places that bore the brunt of Idalia’s wrath “don’t necessarily have the resources” to handle such a powerful hurricane, said US Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Florida, who used to lead the state’s Division of Emergency Management.

“There are some communities that may never look the same and others that will get rebuilt that will look slightly different,” he said.

“This is a life-changing event for some of these counties.”

Michael Bobbitt, a Cedar Key resident who rode out the storm to help his neighbors, said the scene was “almost apocalyptic.”

“When the wind was kicking in the middle of the night, and when the water was coming toward us from all three sides, it looked like a leviathan trying to reach out of the water to devour us whole. It was biblical stuff,” Bobbitt said Wednesday night.

Some traditional Florida villas “were just picked up and carried into the Gulf, so that was heartbreaking to see,” Bobbitt said.

“My neighbor’s house across from me was submerged to the roof line, but we had no injuries,” he said. “We’re here. We’ll rebuild. We’ll do what Cedar Key does. All in all, I feel incredibly blessed.”

He credited the federal, state and local government with a “remarkable response” to the disaster.

“We’ve got what we need. The resources are in place, and we’re already about the business of rebuilding this island,” Bobbitt said.

The death toll remains uncertain

Two men were killed in separate, weather-related crashes Wednesday morning as Idalia barreled across Florida, Sgt. Steve Gaskins of Florida Highway Patrol said.

But on Thursday, DeSantis said “so far, there’s been one confirmed fatality and that was a traffic fatality in Alachua County.”

It’s not clear why the governor and the highway patrol have different numbers for weather-related deaths. CNN has sought clarification.

And in Georgia, a man trying to cut a tree on a highway in Lowndes County died after a tree fell on him, Sheriff Ashley Paulk told CNN.

But despite the devastation, many Floridians were grateful Idalia’s impact wasn’t more catastrophic.

“We got buzz-sawed along the side,” Pasco County Administrator Mike Carballa said. “Quite honestly, while the effects could have been worse, we definitely took it on the chin.”

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‘This is a life-changing event’: Floridians start an arduous recovery after disastrous Idalia