Hurricane Idalia brought torrential rain and threats of flash flooding on Wednesday afternoon to southeast Georgia after slamming into Florida, where authorities feared a powerful storm surge may have inundated communities in the Big Bend region.
Authorities in Florida were still trying to carry out damage assessments in the hardest-hit areas as water rescues of trapped residents were under way in southern Georgia.
Video footage and photographs from the region showed ocean waters washing over highways and neighborhoods swamped by extensive flooding at midday.
More than 75 people have been rescued from flood waters in St. Petersburg, the city said on the X social media platform. A video showed two rescue workers in a small boat traveling through a flooded neighborhood in heavy rains.
In Valdosta, Georgia, about 80 miles (129 km) northeast of Tallahassee, emergency boat crews were carrying out rescues of residents trapped in homes, according to the city’s Facebook page. No other details were immediately available.
Drawing strength from the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, Idalia unleashed destructive winds and torrential downpours that were forecast to cause flooding up to 16 feet (5 m) deep along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
By early Wednesday afternoon, the eye of Idalia had left Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said at a press conference. He added that parts of the state, particularly in the north, were still being buffeted by storm bands.
Florida’s Gulf Coast, southeastern Georgia and eastern parts of North and South Carolina could face 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) of rain through Thursday, with isolated areas seeing as much as a foot of rain, the National Hurricane Center warned.
Georgia authorities were monitoring the system as it entered the state. “Hopefully, it’s out of the state by 8 p.m. this evening, maybe 10 o’clock, and then that we can begin to assess for those that were hit first,” state Emergency Management Agency Director James C. Stallings said at a briefing on Wednesday.
Cedric King, a businessman from coastal Brunswick, Georgia, just south of Savannah, was not going to take chances.
“I packed up the family and headed north,” he said after a 5-hour drive with his mother, wife and children. “We evacuated.”
The storm’s most dangerous feature is a powerful surge of wind-driven surf that is expected to flood low-lying areas, officials said.
Earlier on Wednesday, DeSantis warned that the chances of surviving a storm surge that approached 16 feet were “not great,” and that “you would need to be in a three-story building because it is going to rise very, very high.”
By midmorning, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration monitoring station in Steinhatchee, 20 miles (32 km) south of Keaton Beach where the storm came ashore, showed waters reaching 8 feet, well above the 6-foot flood stage. Stations in the more densely populated Tampa area showed “minor flooding” at 10 a.m.
In Hillsborough County, an area of 1.5 million people south of the Big Bend region that includes Tampa, crews were dealing with widespread damage and flooded streets, officials said in a news briefing.
“Folks, this storm is not over. If you are in a safe location, please remain there,” said Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley, noting that local waterways would crest at high tide at 2:30 p.m.
Overnight, Idalia attained “an extremely dangerous Category 4 intensity” on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale, but by 7 a.m. the storm weakened slightly into Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (201 kph), the NHC said.
By 11 a.m. EDT, maximum sustained winds had ebbed to 90 mph (150 kph), reducing the tempest to a Category 1 storm as it entered southeastern Georgia, the NHC said.
TWO DEATHS REPORTED IN FLORIDA
Two motorists died in separate rain-related crashes on Wednesday morning, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. In Wednesday afternoon’s press briefing, DeSantis said he only knew of “unconfirmed” reports of storm-caused fatalities.
Florida Transportation Secretary Jared Perdue said at the briefing that the state’s National Guard was conducting water rescues from vehicles in Hernando and Taylor counties.
About 1,000 bridges are expected to be inspected in northern Florida on Wednesday before they can reopen, Perdue added.
More than 280,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida as of midday and 160,000 customers were similarly affected in Georgia, Poweroutage.us reported.
U.S. President Joseph Biden on Wednesday said he discussed the storm with DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election.
Biden said they shared a desire to help Floridians. “This is not about politics, it’s about taking care of the people of the state,” Biden told reporters.
Criswell said earlier that more than 1,000 personnel from FEMA’s rapid assessment teams were ready to hit the ground to assess storm damage once Idalia passes.
It was the fourth major hurricane to strike Florida in the past seven years, following Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018 and Ian, which peaked at Category 5, last September.
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