Florida Faces Major Hurricane Threat as Idalia Strengthens

Tropical Storm Idalia strengthened near Cuba as it moves toward Florida’s west coast, threatening to strike as a major hurricane Wednesday with life-threatening rains and storm surge.

(Bloomberg) — Tropical Storm Idalia strengthened near Cuba as it moves toward Florida’s west coast, threatening to strike as a major hurricane Wednesday with life-threatening rains and storm surge.

Idalia’s winds rose to 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour, just below hurricane force, and are forecast to reach Category 3 strength at 115 mph as the storm makes landfall Wednesday after hitting western Cuba, the US National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 2 p.m. New York time. Depending on its exact track, Idalia could cause up to $10 billion in damage and losses, according to a disaster modeling firm Enki Research. 

“Steady to rapid intensification is predicted beginning Tuesday,” Daniel Brown, a senior hurricane specialist at the center, wrote in an analysis. The forecast “calls for Idalia to reach major hurricane strength before landfall along the Gulf coast of Florida.” 

Rapid intensification means Idalia’s winds could jump by 35 mph or more in a day, a burst of strength that sometimes takes officials and residents by surprise as a storm approaches. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis extended his emergency declaration to cover 46 counties, up from 33 earlier this weekend. President Joe Biden also approved federal emergency declarations for Florida, allowing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate relief efforts. Tampa International Airport will close Tuesday. 

Because the storm’s track can change before it makes landfall, he warned residents all along the coast, from Tampa to the Florida Panhandle, to be prepared. Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for parts of Citrus, Pinellas, Levy, Manatee, Pasco and Taylor counties.

“We can’t unring the bell if someone stays and does battle with Mother Nature,” DeSantis said at a press conference Monday. “This is not something you want to do battle with.”

In addition to its winds, Idalia could push as much as 11 feet (3 meters) of water onto the shore from the Aucilla River to Chassahowitzka, Florida, and up to 7 feet into Tampa Bay, as well as drench a large area as far north as the Carolinas with up to 8 inches of rain. Flooding downpours that could spark landslides are also expected across western Cuba as the storm moves north. 

How much damage Idalia does will depend on its exact track, said Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane researcher at Colorado State University. It is forecast to approach the coast at a shallow angle and if it comes in just north of Tampa, it could push a lot of storm surge up the bay, causing quite a bit of damage. The worst surge and winds along the coast will likely be from where the eye hits to areas south of there. 

“It is going to be a really close call, 20 or 30 miles is going to make a lot of difference,” Klotzbach said. “It’s yet another nail-biter for Tampa.” 

Barge traffic moving fuel along the US Gulf Coast to Florida is down, according to Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Fuel Marketers Association. Meanwhile, demand is surging for gasoline as Floridians fill up for possible evacuations as well as for diesel for backup power generation, Bowman said. 

To complicate matters, DeSantis said the state has identified 29 gas stations that recently received tainted fuel. Citgo said Sunday it discovered contaminated fuel at its terminal in Tampa, Florida, and has asked marketers to stop sales of the product. DeSantis said the incident likely won’t have a major impact on fuel supply.

Florida is mainly supplied via waterborne shipments from refiners in Texas and Louisiana. The Coast Guard has closed the ports of Tampa, Manatee, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers to incoming traffic in advance of Idalia. 

The exact spot Idalia will come ashore isn’t certain. “It cannot be emphasized enough that only a small deviation in the track could cause a significant change in Idalia’s landfall location,” Brown wrote. 

If it reaches forecast strength, Idalia would be the first major hurricane to hit Florida since last September when Hurricane Ian struck the western part of the state as a Category 4 storm, killing at least 150 people and causing more than $112 billion in damage, the hurricane center said. 

Idalia is expected to stay in the eastern Gulf, away from offshore oil and natural gas production. Most of the key citrus areas in central Florida would not be seriously impacted, World Weather Inc. President Drew Lerner said.

However, Idalia may affect agriculture across the South, as well as bring widespread power outages and snarl land and air travel.

Meanwhile to the east, Hurricane Franklin’s winds have reached 115 mph, making a Category 3 storm as it churns in the Atlantic southwest of Bermuda. Despite its power, Franklin is currently forecast to miss any inhabited areas and head out to sea. 

–With assistance from Immanual John Milton, Jim Wyss, Sheela Tobben, Chunzi Xu and Anna Jean Kaiser.

(Updates with forecast starting in second paragraph)

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