Hurricane Idalia leaves Florida as damage assessment begins

Ron Ganser, 73, inspects the damage to his mobile home caused by a fallen pine tree during Hurricane Idalia in Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.

Ron Ganser, 73, inspects the damage to his mobile home caused by a fallen pine tree during Hurricane Idalia in Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.

adiaz@miamiherald.com

Hurricane Idalia made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend early Wednesday morning as a Category 3 hurricane, pushing a wall of destructive water into coastal communities, shutting down part of a major interstate and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of people.

By early afternoon, the fast-moving storm, now a Category 1, was already well into Georgia. Rescue efforts — and damage assessments — began immediately in the sparsely populated Nature Coast, which was hammered with 125 mph sustained winds in the strike zone at Keaton Beach.

Given Idalia’s power, the early assessments were encouraging. Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that power restoration efforts were underway across the state, which reported no “major damage” from Idalia thus far.

He said one person may have died from the storm in a “traffic incident” that is being investigated by state police.

“That may end up being a confirmed fatality. It has not been confirmed yet,” DeSantis said. “But that one is in the hopper, and it is being reviewed.”

The Florida Highway Patrol reported two men died in rain-related traffic accidents on Wednesday, one in Alachua County and one in Pasco County.

“The eye of Hurricane Idalia has left the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. “We’re still assessing what is all going on on the ground in the places that had the initial impact.”

Jeremy Harris, 51, inspects the mobile home he and his mother, Candace Dayton, 66, were sleeping in when a pine tree crashed into their kitchen at 9 AM during Hurricane Idalia at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.
Jeremy Harris, 51, inspects the mobile home he and his mother, Candace Dayton, 66, were sleeping in when a pine tree crashed into their kitchen at 9 AM during Hurricane Idalia at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

Deanne Criswell, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Wednesday that it was too soon to assess how much recovery efforts would cost.

“It will take several days to get a full understanding of what the initial assessment, the damage assessment is,” she said. “But it will take longer to get a full picture of the total amount of impact of this.”

There were widespread reports of flooding from the heavily populated waterfronts around Tampa Bay north to Cedar Key, another isolated Big Bend enclave. Storm surge, Idalia’s biggest threat, reached 6.8 feet in Cedar Key early Wednesday, filling streets and flooding some homes and buildings. That broke a record for the small city, although it didn’t appear to reach the 16-foot maximum forecast by the National Hurricane Center.

Cedar Key was slammed with several feet of storm surge Wednesday morning as Category 3 Hurricane Idalia made landfall just to the north.
Cedar Key was slammed with several feet of storm surge Wednesday morning as Category 3 Hurricane Idalia made landfall just to the north. Cedar Key Fire Rescue

Livestreams of webcams stationed throughout the area showed roofs ripped off sheds near Horseshoe Beach, buildings completely inundated at Steinhatchee Marina and roads underwater in Cedar Key. Spots across the Big Bend region were reporting 2 to 6 inches of rain as Idalia moved inland, according to the WeatherSTEM network, with a peak of 8.5 inches so far east of Tallahassee, near the Georgia border.

The worst of the wind damage appeared to be in the city of Perry, in Taylor County. High winds tore roofs off of buildings, metal awnings off of gas stations and blew in the glass windows of storefronts in the town of fewer than 7,000 people.

At a peak, more than 280,000 households in Florida were without power Wednesday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us.

Taylor, Madison, Jefferson and Suwanee counties saw nearly every customer without power. Duke Energy Florida, the main electric provider in that area, said it was working hard and through environmental hazards to get power restored.

By Wednesday night, that number fell to around 191,000.

READ MORE HERE: Did everyone lose power after Hurricane Idalia? What to know about outages in Florida

The Associated Press reported that part of I-75, the major highway connecting Florida and Georgia, was closed in Georgia due to downed power lines. Dozens of bridges and roads, from the Big Bend area down to Sarasota, remained closed or inaccessible as officials checked them for damage. The bridge crossing Steinhatchee, in Taylor County, was cracked, and photos show the ocean chewed off chunks of at least one road, on Sarasota County’s barrier island.

In the state capital of Tallahassee, downed trees blocked roads, and one, a 100-year-old oak tree, fell near the Governor’s mansion. Casey DeSantis, Florida’s first lady, said she and her children were home and “no one was injured.”

Ken and Tina Kruse stand next to their apartment after the area flooded from Hurricane Idalia in Tarpon Springs, Florida on August 30, 2023.
Ken and Tina Kruse stand next to their apartment after the area flooded from Hurricane Idalia in Tarpon Springs, Florida on August 30, 2023. GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK

Kevin Guthrie, head of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, said that the search and rescue effort had begun, but warned that it would take longer than it did last year after Hurricane Ian.

Search and rescue teams have yet to find anyone dead in their homes, and there are no outstanding missing persons reports, Guthrie said in an evening press conference.

DeSantis and emergency officials say it’s because residents seemed to heed evacuation orders.

“As the governor has talked about, many many people heeded the warnings to evacuate,” Guthrie said.

Idalia also came ashore in a lightly populated area, where small communities are spaced out between huge stretches of forest or nature preserves, as opposed to the densely packed neighborhoods in Southwest Florida.

“Some of this is going to take longer than what we experienced with initial search and rescue efforts in Fort Myers, just because of the landscape,” Guthrie said earlier in the day.

He said there were also very few people who didn’t evacuate. According to the state’s count, there were around 100 people who didn’t evacuate in Levy County and about 50 in Taylor County.

Marion County Fire Rescue Firefighter/EMT Jacob Knobbe, left carries a chain saw as Lt. Daniel Smith, center and Driver Engineer Matt Kimerling, right, clear out brush after responding to a single vehicle accident that involved Marion County Sheriff Deputy Jonathan Coleman Wednesday morning, August 30, 2023. The accident occurred in the 6300 block of NE 36th Ave Rd. In Ocala, Fla. The deputy was transported from the scene with a possible broken ankle and some cuts an abrasions according to Marion County Chief Deputy Robert Douglas. The accident occurred as Hurricane Idalia passed through Marion County. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2023
Marion County Fire Rescue Firefighter/EMT Jacob Knobbe, left carries a chain saw as Lt. Daniel Smith, center and Driver Engineer Matt Kimerling, right, clear out brush after responding to a single vehicle accident that involved Marion County Sheriff Deputy Jonathan Coleman Wednesday morning, August 30, 2023. The accident occurred in the 6300 block of NE 36th Ave Rd. In Ocala, Fla. The deputy was transported from the scene with a possible broken ankle and some cuts an abrasions according to Marion County Chief Deputy Robert Douglas. The accident occurred as Hurricane Idalia passed through Marion County. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2023 Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner Doug Engle/Ocala Star-Banner / USA TODAY NETWORK

The good news, Guthrie said, is that state and local agencies were almost fully caught up on all calls for help from the region. He said a couple of 911 centers went down “briefly, for about 20 to 30 minutes” during the storm, and they’re nearly done with the “minor” backlog of calls for help.

“There is no one in distress that has not been taken care of. We have a lot of people that have called 911 saying ‘I’m entrapped in my house. I’m OK, but I need help,” Guthrie said. “We’re going to get to those folks just as fast as we can get our emergency access teams in to them.”

Local police did not receive the same types of calls this week as they did after Ian, DeSantis said.

“The panicked phone calls of people calling, whose homes were filling up with water, was something that was very, very ominous, and that happened relatively early on when the surge first started happening,” DeSantis said of Ian. “It’s been different than what they were finding with Hurricane Ian, and that’s obviously welcomed news.”

The scene in Perry

In Perry, which DeSantis identified as “ground zero” for the storm’s worst winds, people were picking up the pieces left in Idalia’s wake. And there were a lot of pieces.

A tree limb smashed the skylight in the shower of Mike Maclin’s RV at the Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park. A piece of that tree poked a hole through the wood above his freezer.

A lifelong shrimper who didn’t have a car to leave, Maclin said he got goosebumps when Idalia howled through the community, felling trees that crushed roofs and cars. He’s been in some strong squalls on the gulf before, waters he’s tread since he was 14. Idalia was different.

Mike Maclin, 53, walks past his neighbor’s mobile home damaged by Hurricane Idalia at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.
Mike Maclin, 53, walks past his neighbor’s mobile home damaged by Hurricane Idalia at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

“This is by far the strongest storm I’ve ever seen,” he said, his voice cracking as he looked down and wiped his eyes with his sweat-soaked shirt.

In this town, nasty wind gusts blew roofs off gas stations, mangled a McDonald’s sign, blasted out the glass front of a T-Mobile store and shredded countless oak and pine trees. Yellow caution tape blocked off several littered streets around downtown. The ground was caked with smashed pine cones and Spanish moss.

“I almost put up a sign that said, ‘Don’t gawk. Pick up!’” said Melissa Layton, who had just moved to a rented home in Perry three weeks ago. The house is fine, but it’s an island in a sea of cracked tree limbs.

“I found this in the gutter across the street,” she said, holding up her mailbox.

John McCranie, 50, steps over a fallen pine tree at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.
John McCranie, 50, steps over a fallen pine tree at Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

Back at the RV park, Patrick Brower sat in the shade of the concrete block bathrooms in the center of the park, looking at the tall pine that damaged his RV and crushed the front of his Chevy Cruze.

“This is my first hurricane,” said Brower, a Michigander who’s lived in Perry for less than a year. He rode out the storm in the bathroom while his black-and-white cat Sylvester stayed in the RV.

Brower said he was okay, and that’s what mattered. He’ll get through it. Maclin said he’ll bounce back.

Ron Ganser, 73, looks out a window in his mobile home damaged by a fallen pine tree caused by Hurricane Idalia in Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. Ganser says he woke up his wife Pat Ganser, 56, to get a cup of coffee and got up has the tree crashed. The wet mattress was removed to dry out since they have nowhere to go for the night.
Ron Ganser, 73, looks out a window in his mobile home damaged by a fallen pine tree caused by Hurricane Idalia in Perry Cove Mobile Home and RV Park in Perry, Florida on Wednesday, August 30, 2023. Ganser says he woke up his wife Pat Ganser, 56, to get a cup of coffee and got up has the tree crashed. The wet mattress was removed to dry out since they have nowhere to go for the night. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

“I’ve still got these, and I’ve got shrimping,” he said, holding up his two hands.

Other coastal communities were swamped Wednesday, and cars were not allowed in. Outside Steinhatchee, a bridge leading into town was cracked, and authorities prevented residents from driving in. Sheriff Wayne Padgett said a curfew would be in place there and in Keaton Beach, which bore the brunt of Idalia’s fury, until the waters receded.

A Cat 3 at landfall

In the hours before landfall, Idalia’s maximum sustained winds hit 130 mph, Category 4 strength, but slightly weakened back to 125 mph and Category 3 — not a significant difference as far as potential damage. The hurricane had also spawned tornado watches and warnings across much of north Central Florida and as far as south Georgia as Idalia’s outer bands raked both states.

It made landfall in Keaton Beach around 7:45 a.m. and quickly trekked north, at 20 mph. The fast pace kept the biting winds from lingering too long on any of the already-thrashed communities in its path and kept rain from piling up too much.

By 5 p.m., the hurricane center said Idalia had weakened to a Tropical Storm, with sustained winds near 70 mph, as it crossed over Georgia and the Carolinas. It was still moving northeast at a fast clip — 21 mph. It was about 40 miles west of Savannah, Georgia.

Waves pound the Flagler Pier on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Hurricane Idalia came ashore Wednesday morning in the Big Bend area of Florida. Effects from the storm in Flagler and Volusia counties were minimal.
Waves pound the Flagler Pier on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. Hurricane Idalia came ashore Wednesday morning in the Big Bend area of Florida. Effects from the storm in Flagler and Volusia counties were minimal. David Tucker/News-Journal David Tucker/News-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Overnight, the fast-moving storm jogged a bit to the northeast in a long-expected turn that spared the state capital of Tallahassee from the strongest winds around Idalia’s relatively small eyewall. But the full fury of the storm slammed the Big Bend, which saw up to 7 feet of surge in the fishing town of Cedar Key, where a NOAA tidal gauge was installed.

Wednesday morning, Cedar Key’s fire rescue team warned people to stay off of the island due to downed trees and propane tanks “blowing off” buildings. “We have multiple trees down, debris in the roads, do not come,” they posted on Facebook.

Chris Bodue paddles through his flooded neighborhood from Hurricane Idalia in Tarpon Springs, Florida on August 30, 2023.
Chris Bodue paddles through his flooded neighborhood from Hurricane Idalia in Tarpon Springs, Florida on August 30, 2023. GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST / USA TODAY NETWORK

McClatchy White House correspondent Alex Roarty, Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Lawrence Mower and Miami Herald reporter Devoun Cetoute contributed to this report.

This story was originally published August 30, 2023, 7:54 AM.

Alex Harris is the lead climate change reporter for the Miami Herald’s climate team, which covers how South Florida communities are adapting to the warming world. Her beat also includes environmental issues and hurricanes. She attended the University of Florida.

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