Florida‘s officials were urging people living in the path of Hurricane Idalia to evacuate while there was still time – but, despite warnings of storm surges of up to 15 feet and the storm upgraded to a Category 4, some were choosing to hunker down at home.
Idalia is expected to make landfall in the early hours of Wednesday as a Category 4 storm, the National Hurricane Center said in its 11pm ET update.
The NHC is now predicting sustained winds of up to 110mph in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula.
As of 10pm EDT on Tuesday, the storm was only 1mph from Category 3, which means gusts exceeding 111mph.
The result could be a big blow to a state still dealing with lingering damage from last year’s Hurricane Ian, which killed 150 people – more in Florida than any hurricane in almost 90 years.
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.
Yet some were choosing to ignore the warnings, which affected 28 counties – despite officials saying they may not be able to rescue them, and roads may become impassable.
Evacuation orders were in place in 28 counties across the Big Bend area of Florida
Hurricane Idalia is seen barreling towards Tampa and the Big Bend area of Florida
Heather Greenwood, manager of Cedar Key Bed & Breakfast, told CNN that her house was on the highest part of the island, which is expected to be badly affected.
She said she was worried, but wanted to stay to help others.
‘I’m here and I’m available to help them as much as I can,’ she said, adding that she has filled the bathtubs with water, and stocked up on bottled water and food.
‘Being vigilant at this point is the main part,’ Greenwood said.
Power and water was shut off at 8pm on Tuesday as a precaution.
At that time, Idalia was about 155 miles west-southwest of Tampa, the National Hurricane Center said.
It was moving north at 16mph.
A tornado watch is now in effect for more than seven million people across central and western Florida, including Tampa, until 6am ET on Wednesday.
Cedar Key Commissioner Sue Colson joined other city officials in packing up documents and electronics at City Hall.
She had a message for the almost 900 residents who were under mandatory orders to evacuate.
‘One word: Leave,’ Colson said. ‘It’s not something to discuss.’
More than a dozen state troopers went door to door warning residents that storm surge could rise as high as 15 feet, easily covering a bus in height and rising well into the second floor of a typical house.
The Red Cross delivers snacks to Lincoln High School where Floridans have taken shelter from Hurricane Idalia on Tuesday
Gas station pumps are wrapped in plastic to prevent damage on Cedar Key in preparation for Hurricane Idalia
People board up a window in Tampa, Florida on Tuesday in readiness for the storm
Workers set up a fence to prevent flooding at Tampa General Hospital
Hurricane warnings were in place in Georgia, too: pictured is Bryan Moore, a resident of Tybee Island, Georgia, boarding up his home
TAMPA: Kiosks at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter are covered in protective wrapping at the Tampa International Airport as all flights were canceled
PINELLAS PARK: Landfall is expected in the Big Bend area of Florida near Steinhatchee. as locals panic-buying leaves shelves bare
The intensity of Hurricane Idalia is expected to reach 105mph by landfall
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, repeated the warning on Tuesday afternoon.
‘You really gotta go now. Now is the time,’ he said.
Earlier, the governor stressed that residents did not necessarily need to leave the state, but should ‘get to higher ground in a safe structure.’
He added: ‘You can ride the storm out there, then go back to your home.’
Ashley Moody, the attorney general of Florida, was urging locals to encourage newcomers to heed the warnings.
‘As you know, Florida leads the nation in net migration. Our population is growing exponentially. And so we have a lot of Floridians that have never experienced a storm like this,’ she told Fox News Digital.
‘And so I’ve been asking those like me – who I’m a fifth generation Floridian, my family has gone through numerous storms – to advise those that are new to Florida, please don’t take this lightly.
‘Please heed the warnings.’
She added: ‘We need to take care of and help those that are new in preparing for what this storm can become.’
Moody said the state will prosecute anyone found looting to the full extent of the law.
‘We are a law and order state. We will not take it lightly if folks are looting,’ she said.
‘We want everyone to be in this together to think of each other to help support one another.
‘We do need to be aware that in times of emergency, in these challenging times, there are bad actors – from those seeking to make a profit off of essential commodities, to those that are waiting in the aftermath to where property is abandoned, and neither will be tolerated.’
Andy Bair, owner of the Island Hotel on Cedar Key, ignored their warnings.
He said he intended to ‘babysit’ his bed-and-breakfast, which predates the Civil War.
The building has not flooded in the almost 20 years he has owned it, not even when Hurricane Hermine flooded the city in 2016.
‘Being a caretaker of the oldest building in Cedar Key, I just feel kind of like I need to be here,’ said Bair.
‘We’ve proven time and again that we’re not going to wash away. We may be a little uncomfortable for a couple of days, but we’ll be OK eventually.’
He said he was staying for ‘community’.
‘I think we’ll be alright,’ he told CNN.
‘We’ve got a couple of sandbags out there, and the elmer glue between the sandbags.’
Janalea England, who owns a fish market in Steinhatchee, 50 miles north along the coast from Cedar Key, said she was also planning on ignoring the warnings.
‘Here she comes,’ she wrote on Facebook around 5pm on Tuesday.
Janalea England and her husband Garrett England were remaining in Steinhatchee
Payton Wasserman said that she was in Tampa and staying in her apartment
She said that people had asked her what would be needed for the cleanup, and said that trash bags, bleach, pillows, toiletries and cleaning supplies were needed after Hurricane Hermine, a Category One storm which hit in 2016, causing a six foot storm surge.
Lori Leigh Batts-Bennett left her condo in Steinhatchee for Jacksonville, but said she was worried about those who remained in the town.
‘Some have that mentality of ‘I’m going to stay here and take care of my own,’ Batts-Bennett told CNN.
‘Once people wake up they’re going to be paralyzed with what they see.’
One woman, Jess, posted a TikTok showing her street, and said many of her neighbors had decided to stay.
Another, Payton Wasserman, said that she was in Tampa and staying in her apartment.
‘Posted up on my balcony with a fat bottle of prosecco and some high hopes,’ she wrote.
Many commentators urged her to leave while she still could.
‘Girl Evac it’s not worth it,’ one wrote.
‘I got stuck in sally 2021 no power or running water or gas for over a week it was scary.’
Another added: ‘Everyone who stayed for Ida in Louisiana 2 years ago will tell you to get out now.
‘With rapid intensification, they’re saying it could be a 4.’
Tolls were waived on highways out of the danger area, shelters were open and hotels prepared to take in evacuees.
More than 30,000 utility workers were gathering to make repairs as quickly as possible in the hurricane’s wake.
About 5,500 National Guard troops were activated.