Idalia was downgraded to a tropical storm Wednesday evening as it moved over Georgia and along the Carolina coast after leaving a trail of devastation through northern Florida, where it brought a “catastrophic storm surge” as a Category 3 hurricane.
Shortly after hitting Florida Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Idalia was packing winds of 205 kilometres per hour, and was causing water levels at Cedar Key to reach highs of 6.8 feet above normal levels.
“Catastrophic storm surge occurring along the coast of the Florida Big Bend and damaging winds spreading inland over northern Florida,” the NHC said.
Idalia remained a hurricane as it crossed into Georgia with 150-kilometre-per-hour winds. By 5 p.m. eastern, the NHC reported the centre of Idalia was moving over southeast Georgia as a tropical storm, ending its storm surge warnings for Georgia and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Later in the evening, the winds had dropped to 100 kilometres per hour.
Flash flooding and storm surges were still forecast in parts of the Carolinas, where Idalia is expected to travel before heading offshore into the Atlantic on Thursday.
As the eye moved inland, high winds shredded signs, blew off roofs, sent sheet metal flying and snapped tall trees.
One person was killed in Georgia. No hurricane-related deaths were officially confirmed in Florida, but the Florida Highway Patrol reported two people dying in separate weather-related crashes just hours before Idalia made landfall.
The storm was bringing strong winds to Savannah, Georgia, Wednesday evening as it made its way toward the Carolinas. It was forecast to pass over Charleston, South Carolina, early Thursday morning before turning east and heading out to the Atlantic Ocean.
Idalia spawned a tornado that briefly touched down in the Charleston suburb of Goose Creek, the National Weather Service said. The winds sent a car flying and flipped it over, according to authorities and eyewitness video. Two people received minor injuries.
Along South Carolina’s coast, North Myrtle Beach, Garden City, and Edisto Island all reported ocean water flowing over sand dunes and spilling onto beachfront streets Wednesday evening. In Charleston, storm surge from Idalia topped the seawall that protects the downtown, sending ankle-deep ocean water into the streets and neighborhoods where horse-drawn carriages pass million-dollar homes and the famous open-air market.
Idalia came ashore as a Category 3 hurricane around 7:45 a.m. eastern at Keaton Beach, an ocean-front community of 13,000 people in Taylor County, roughly 121 kilometres southeast of the state capital Tallahassee.
Keaton Beach lies in the centre of the Big Bend region, where the state’s northern panhandle curves into the Florida Peninsula.
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have ever passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend.
More than 450,000 Florida and Georgia homes and businesses are without power, according to a 5 p.m. eastern update from PowerOutage.us, a number that fell to around 350,000 by 9 p.m. eastern. U.S. airlines cancelled nearly 2,000 flights Wednesday.
Idalia brought flooding to the streets from Tampa to Tallahassee, but moved through Florida by 1 p.m. eastern, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
The state, still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian, feared disastrous results.
Florida officials said during an update Wednesday afternoon nearly 1,000 bridges in the area needed to be inspected. There remains high water in many areas, and motorists were urged not to drive through flooded roadways.
State officials, 5,500 National Guardsman and rescue crews were in search-and-recovery mode, inspecting bridges, clearing toppled trees and looking for anyone in distress in one of Florida’s most rural regions.
Because of the remoteness, search teams may need more time to complete their work compared with past hurricanes in more urban areas, said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management.
“You may have two houses on a 5-mile (8-kilometer) road so it’s going to take some time,” Guthries said.
Global Affairs Canada warned Canadians Wednesday against non-essential travel to impacted areas. Those in those areas are advised to exercise caution, monitor local news and weather reports and follow the instructions of local authorities.
Idalia had grown into a Category 2 system on Tuesday afternoon, and became a Category 3 just hours later Wednesday before strengthening to a Category 4 and then weakening slightly to a high-end Category 3.
Hurricanes are measured on a five-category scale, with a Category 5 being the strongest. A Category 3 storm is the first on the scale considered a major hurricane.
Asked about the hurricane Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden said he had spoken DeSantis and “provided him with everything that he possibly needs.”
Biden said in an update Wednesday that federal teams are on the ground working with local officials to get people to safety.
“I let each governor I spoke with know if there’s anything the states need right now, I’m ready to mobilize that support of what they need,” he said.
Ian was responsible last year for almost 150 deaths. The Category 5 hurricane damaged 52,000 structures in Florida, nearly 20,000 of which were destroyed or severely damaged.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said the 2023 hurricane season would be far busier than initially forecast, partly because of extremely warm ocean temperatures. The season runs through Nov. 30, with August and September typically the peak.
— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters