Tropical Storm Idalia descends on North Carolina after pounding Florida, Georgia and South Carolina

Among the eight Republican candidates in the primary debate held at Milwaukee's FiServ Forum, three were either current or former governors of states that have experienced devastating hurricanes. Although South Carolina, under the leadership of then-Gov. Nikki Haley, did not face a hurricane during her six-year tenure, Hurricane Sandy severely impacted parts of New Jersey when Chris Christie was the governor in 2012. Furthermore, as the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis was in power last year when Hurricane Ian struck as the fifth-strongest storm to hit the United States, resulting in significant damage and loss of life. 

Governor DeSantis has a responsibility to protect Floridians, given his role as Florida's governor. However, it is important to note that denying the existence of climate change does not contribute to their protection. Climate denialism perpetuates policies that prioritize the status quo and fail to address the vulnerabilities faced by those living in hurricane-prone regions such as Florida. 

It is worth mentioning that Governor DeSantis faced Hurricane Idalia, a Category 4 storm that later weakened to a dangerous Category 3 storm upon making landfall. Sadly, there have already been reports of at least two fatalities linked to the storm. While addressing a reporter before the storm hit, Governor DeSantis commented that Donald Trump's silence on the matter was not his concern as he prioritized protecting the people of Florida.

In summary, Governor DeSantis's primary concern should indeed be safeguarding Floridians. However, it is vital to acknowledge that denying the realities of climate change does not provide adequate protection. The adoption of policies that acknowledge and address the growing risks associated with climate change is crucial to ensuring the safety and well-being of those residing in hurricane-prone areas.  

As Hurricane Idalia rapidly approached Florida’s Big Bend region early Wednesday morning, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had to ground its last remaining “hurricane hunter” plane due to a generator failure.

Dubbed Miss Piggy, the plane is one of three aircraft operated by NOAA that can collect storm data essential to forecasters. In the 24 hours before Idalia slammed into Florida, it was the only NOAA-operated aircraft available to provide the federal agency’s National Hurricane Center with data on the storm, according to one former senior NOAA official and one current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity.

Asked about the matter Wednesday, NOAA confirmed the plane’s technical problems.

The two other planes were undergoing repairs. After days of flying into Idalia, Miss Piggy, too, was sidelined — unable to carry out the early-morning flight requested by the Hurricane Center as the storm was set to make landfall. Instead, an Air Force plane that had also been asked to fly provided data on the storm, two current employees said.

The planes’ troubles have raised concerns about the availability of one key forecasting tool ahead of what’s shaping up to be an active hurricane season. While the Hurricane Center has other ways of gathering information, experts say forecasters rely heavily on these planes for data that helps inform watches, warnings, and evacuation decisions.

In addition to the flights, NOAA said it used a variety of tools to track Idalia’s path toward Florida, including satellites and the National Weather Service’s network of radars. “NOAA has numerous observing platforms on and in the ocean this season,” said Scott Smullen, an agency spokesman.

It’s still unclear whether the Hurricane Center’s forecast suffered for having only one NOAA plane flying into Idalia as it advanced toward shore. Some experts noted that predictions about the system’s path have been accurate, and flying planes is less important as storms near shore, where they can be tracked by ground-based radars. But had the planes been unavailable earlier, it could have hurt the accuracy of forecasts, they said.

“It’s like a World Cup soccer game, and you have one goalie, and you play him every moment of every game,” one of the current NOAA officials said. “It’s a very high risk that he gets hurt, and the impact when he does that — you lose the World Cup.”

One of NOAA's hurricane-monitoring aircraft, seen in Arlington, Va., in 2017. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

‘Hurricane Hunters’

Aside from Miss Piggy, NOAA operates another Lockheed WP-3D Orion called Kermit and a Gulfstream IV-SP named Gonzo.

The Lockheed planes, known as P-3s, punch through the eyewalls of hurricanes to gather the data forecasters need to make accurate predictions about the intensity and trajectory of hurricanes.

“They’re made to fly through nasty weather, and fly really low and be very rugged,” said Mark Luther, an oceanographer at the University of South Florida. “They’re very sturdy aircraft.”

To paint a picture of a storm, scientists aboard the planes drop probes to measure wind direction and speed, pressure, humidity and temperature as they descend to the sea, transmitting that information back to the aircraft. The planes also have a tail Doppler radar system, or TDR, located near the back that measures precipitation and winds, creating a three-dimensional “CAT scan” that can show forecasters where the strongest winds are, how far they extend out from the storm center and where the most intense rainfall occurs, according to NOAA.

Next-generation radar for hurricane forecasts earns the green light

Gonzo, the Gulfstream jet, flies higher than the P-3s and gathers data on storms from the upper atmosphere.

The three planes are approaching the end of their life spans. The P-3s, for instance, have been in service since the 1970s, while the Gulfstream jet has been operating since the mid-1990s. While they have been retrofitted and repaired, flying through a hurricane can be grueling — for both the crews and the planes.

“They’re going to have to be retired by 2030, if not sooner,” the former senior NOAA official said. “It really depends on how many flights they do. So if we have a couple active seasons, they’re going to hit their end of life a lot sooner.”

In its 2022 aircraft plan, NOAA specified an “operational requirement” to procure four C-130 planes. The new aircraft would replace the two P-3s in service along with another one that was decommissioned in 2018, and provide the agency with “one additional aircraft to meet the expanding airborne data requirements and objectives,” according to the plan.

Lt. Commander Sam Urato points to decals on a Lockheed WP-3D Orion "hurricane hunter" in Arlington, Va., in May 2022. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP)

Tracking Idalia

The most important time for gathering data from deep inside a hurricane is two or four days out, when officials are making decisions about warnings, said James Franklin, a former NOAA hurricane specialist.

The information collected by the hurricane-hunting planes is “extraordinarily valuable” for forecasting, said Steven Morey, an oceanographer at Florida A&M University. “If they don’t get quality data to assimilate in their analysis runs, then there’s going to be a degradation in the forecasts,” he said.

As Idalia moved through the Gulf of Mexico gathering strength, Miss Piggy and Gonzo, along with Air Force C-130s, flew missions that fed data back to the Hurricane Center. Kermit, grounded with a maintenance issue, did not fly the entire time before the storm moved ashore, one of the current NOAA employees said.

The Gulfstream jet flew missions through Monday evening, according to NOAA’s Smullen.

With two alternating crews, the sturdy P-3 was able to maintain regular monitoring flights into the storm as it approached Florida, the NOAA employee said. But early Wednesday morning, the battered plane was grounded.

Smullen confirmed that one of the agency’s P-3 planes had been “conducting back-to-back, round-the-clock research missions for 11 of the past 12 days on Hurricanes Franklin and Idalia, [and] experienced a mechanical issue, forcing the cancellation of a mission this morning to collect data on Hurricane Idalia.”

Jeff Masters, a former flight meteorologist for NOAA, said the airplane data is more critical when storms are farther from shore. “The loss of the P-3 data is not a big issue in this case, since the hurricane was close to landfall at the time and was being well sampled by land-based radar,” he said.

The Hurricane Center did receive data as the storm came ashore from the Air Force flight that had also been requested.

Still, Masters said, “It is fortunate that the P-3 did not go out of service a day or two before landfall when such data is extremely valuable for model predictions.”

NOAA has stopped its flights now that Idalia has moved over land, Smullen said, noting that the agency deploys the aircraft only when the storm’s center is over water.

Both P-3 planes are expected to return to service by next week, he added, while the Gulfstream is undergoing maintenance to fix a flight control mechanism.

Still, the recent plane troubles have heightened concerns among some as the agency braces for more hurricanes this year and beyond.

“We’re not out of the woods,” the NOAA employee said, noting that the peak of this hurricane season is probably still coming. “We’re just getting started.”

President Joe Biden warned Wednesday that Hurricane Idalia was “still very dangerous” even though the storm had weakened after it came ashore in Florida and said he has not forgotten about the wildfire victims in Hawaii, declaring himself “laser-focused” on helping them recover.

Challenged by back-to-back extreme weather episodes — wildfires that burned a historic town on the island of Maui to the ground and a hurricane that forecasters said could bring catastrophic flooding — the Democratic president who is running for a second term sought to appear in command of the federal government’s response to both events.

Some Republicans in Congress have threatened to investigate the federal response in Hawaii after some Maui residents complained that the government wasn’t sending enough early help.

Biden said he had spoken to the governors of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, all states affected by Idalia. He received his second briefing in as many days from Deanne Criswell, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and directed her to spend Thursday with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to start assessing the hurricane damage and the needs there.

DeSantis, who is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and Biden have clashed in recent months over the socially conservative governor’s policies. as politicians from opposing parties will do. But Biden said there was no trace of politics in his storm-related conversations with the governor.

“I know that sounds strange,” Biden said, noting how partisan politics have become. He recalled accompanying DeSantis in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, the last major storm to wallop Florida.

“I think he trusts my judgment and my desire to help and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics,” the president said. “This is about taking care of the people of the state.”

After coming ashore, Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach at 7:45 a.m. as a high-end Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125 mph (205 kph). It had weakened to a tropical storm with winds of 70 mph (113 kph) by Wednesday afternoon.

Biden also announced that $95 billion in infrastructure funds will be going to Maui to help harden the electrical grid and pay for such things as erecting stronger poles to hold up power lines or bury them underground where possible and deploying technology that can send alerts about power disruptions.

Some people on the island whose homes were burned have complained that authorities have refused to let them return to their properties. Biden appealed for patience, explaining that the hazardous material must be removed before anyone can return.

“We’re doing everything we can to move heaven and earth to help you recover, rebuild and return to your lives,” he said, adding that the situation will be as “frustrating as the devil for people.”

“I want to be clear with the people of Maui about what to expect. The work we’re doing is going to take time, in some cases a long time,” he added.

The federal government is paying to remove the debris, including hazardous material.

Biden said he understands how painful the situation is, with lives disrupted, including the start of the new school year, and people displaced.

“I get it. What can I tell you? The one thing I can tell you is we’re going to be with you every step of the way,” the president said.

He met with his Cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the response in Maui and heard from Bob Fenton, the FEMA official he put in charge of overseeing the island’s long-term recovery.

“We are going to make sure you are healed and you’re in better shape than before,” Biden said, recalling his visit to Maui on Aug. 21. “I said when I was on the island last week we’re not leaving until the job’s done, and we’ll be there as long as it takes.”

 Tim Delaino didn’t even consider leaving his home as Hurricane Idalia approached this week. His family has been in Cedar Key, a little island city in the Gulf of Mexico, for five generations, and they have weathered dozens of storms.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you leave?’ But we don’t leave for storms. We never do,” said Delaino, one of about 100 residents who defied evacuation orders and were dubbed “seasoned and salty” by the local sheriff’s office. “We’ve gotten along just fine.”

Delaino’s house is half a block from the water, but it’s on a ridge that rises 20 feet above sea level, a vantage point that gave him confidence, even as the storm sped through. The cedar tree in his front yard lost a few branches, but other than some debris, there wasn’t much to clean up.

While many of his neighbors were heeding the evacuation order Tuesday afternoon, Delaino was out fishing.

Track Hurricane Idalia’s path as it moves toward South Carolina

“I got some redfin and some mullet,” he said. “We’ll cook them up for dinner tonight.”

As Idalia churned northeast toward Georgia and the Carolinas on Wednesday, bringing with it hurricane-force winds and more fears of fatal flooding, communities across Florida’s Big Bend region were beginning to assess the storm’s damage.

Idalia cut an unpredictable path of destruction, rending some homes from their foundations while sparing others.

But as the storm moved on from Florida, residents and officials here were hopeful that they had avoided the deadliest, worst-case scenarios, releasing a cautious, statewide exhale nearly one year after Hurricane Ian caused catastrophic damage and claimed roughly 150 lives.

“This is ten times better than what I expected to come back to,” said Joe Brenner, standing outside of his intact home in the tiny coastal town of Keaton Beach, where Idalia made landfall.

Residents like Brenner returned Wednesday to a stunning sight: Oceanfront homes nearly unscathed by the storm. Brenner’s, a purple three-story house elevated about 12 feet, was stripped of its siding but dry inside.

The town had been spared, with almost no flooding. Even the mailboxes lining the main road were upright.

“It could have been worse,” Brenner said.

At least two motorists died while driving on the region’s rain-sodden roads, authorities said. The storm’s toll may rise in the coming days, but state leaders said they haven’t yet seen the telltale indicators of a high death count.

During Hurricane Ian, for instance, southwest Florida’s Lee County was inundated with frantic 911 calls from people drowning in their homes, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said in a news briefing.

“Just the feeling of dread those phone calls represented, you knew there was going to be a lot of problems,” he said. “We have not seen that in the same way on this storm.”

Geography may be partially to thank, as Idalia made landfall in a sparsely populated swath of the state. Even so, it was the first storm of its magnitude to hit this part of the state in more than 100 years, DeSantis added.

“There’s going to be a lot that’s going to be required to be able to clean this up and to get everything back up and running again,” he said.

A tree was bent over by the strength of Hurricane Idalia. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

That is especially true in the paper mill town of Perry, the seat of coastal Taylor County, where some 7,000 people live. Massive pines and oaks littered the streets on Wednesday, some pulling down power lines and puncturing holes in the roofs of businesses and homes.

Electricity was still out in most of the area and residents, many of whom did not evacuate, were sorting through their soggy belongings, trying to figure out where they’d go next. Roy Johnson, whose roof had ripped open during the storm, was packing trash bags in front of his home.

The 73-year-old retired rest stop worker had spent the tumultuous night hunkered down in his bathtub, clutching his Bible — “praying and trembling,” he said.

“Things started booming and falling out of the trees,” he said. As he walked through his waterlogged kitchen, dodging strewn spaghetti and broken glass, Johnson said he regretted his decision to ride out the storm.

“I should have known better,” he said.

Less than 40 miles south, in the Gulf Coast community of Steinhatchee, floodwaters swamped homes, restaurants, and other businesses along the Steinhatchee River.

Fearing the worst, Fred “Trey” Mitchell evacuated his entire family — a first for the Florida natives. He even persuaded his father, 66-year-old Mitch Mitchell, to leave, enlisting several of his friends to pepper him with phone calls until he relented.

“He did leave, finally. I was so happy,” Trey Mitchell said.

And, according to a neighbor, he got out just in time.

“Mitch’s house is gone, flooded,” said Tom Willits, who runs a local seafood restaurant. “All the restaurants in town other than ours are flooded, too. It’s bad.”

Willits, who lives about 1½ miles from the coast, stayed to help friends stormproof their houses. But the water rose too high, even for Mitch Mitchell’s house, which was elevated over 10 feet. Webcam footage showed floodwater up to the roofs of some homes.

Don Timone, who lives in a mobile home in Steinhatchee, also stayed behind, confident that his dwelling stood on high enough ground. He lost power at 4:30 a.m. Wednesday and found himself praying that the metal signs whipping in the wind wouldn’t collide with his house.

“Does it get scary? Of course it does,” he said. “God didn’t — it’s not my time, apparently. I don’t know why he’s still got me here, but I’m here. … I’m lucky. I hope everyone else around here is lucky.”

In Dunedin, just north of Clearwater and across the bay from Tampa, residents like Jim McGinity were also counting themselves lucky. McGinity moved to the area in 2004, just in time to weather a run of four hurricanes. He was bracing for a big impact from Idalia, but the gauge at his house only registered about an inch of rain.

“Especially after last year” and the threat that became Hurricane Ian, he said, “this one could have done the same.”

Instead, he was wading through his neighborhood’s flooded roads with a pair of binoculars, looking for birds.

Along Tampa’s ritzy and now-flooded Bayshore Boulevard, the mood had also lightened considerably Wednesday, as residents shifted from bracing for disaster to celebrating another dodged bullet.

Lillian Ochoa, 23, brought her snorkel mask to the roadway.

“I’m just gonna place my head in the water,” she said, laughing.

Ochoa, a marketing account manager in Clearwater, was hoping to see gators, or maybe a stingray. But mostly, she was enjoying a welcome break from the stress of the past 24 hours.

“Maybe we’ll find a manatee,” she said.

Down the road, Michael O’Rourke, 63, watched water pool on the block facing his 1915 bungalow. His neighborhood was one of many across the state that flooded rapidly, but he felt confident residents would recover.

“They’ll be okay,” O’Rourke said.

Across the street, three girls — all apparently younger than 12 — waded into the waist-high water, laughing and filming videos on their phones.

“This is crazy!” one squealed.

Michael O’Rourke, 63, and his dog, Bella, walk on a flooded Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa on Wednesday. (Danielle Paquette for the Washington Post)

Businesses across the region were shuttered on Wednesday, but some places exuded normalcy, even as rain continued to pour on and off. At the Old Northeast Tavern in a cobblestoned neighborhood of St. Petersburg, down the street from where a Mercedes sedan had been trapped in floodwater, beer was flowing and people were largely ignoring the Idalia updates on the television.

A sheriff on the screen was talking about statewide rescue efforts when Clay Houston, 33, reached for his cold Yuengling.

“I’m not leaving until it’s a Category 5,” said the sales representative who lives a block away. “And even then …”

Next to him, Carl Pearson, 71, sipped a Guinness and pointed out the bright side.

“We needed the rain,” the retiree said.

Back in Cedar Key, a sense that the community had escaped something potentially ruinous hung in the post-storm air.

Patrick Callen and Daniel Wal were among those who decided to stay on the island. They have only lived there for 2½ years, but their house is 100 years old. They have updated it with hurricane-tested windows and solar panels, which made them one of the only places with electricity after the storm has passed.

“I think the estimations were wrong about both the severity and storm surge,” Callen said. “It almost seemed sensationalistic.”

The two were buzzing around town in a golf cart, like many of the residents who stayed behind. They were picking up debris and helping neighbors clear driveways and sidewalks.

The damage they saw along the waterfront, where Idalia had thrashed bars, restaurants, and hotels, was sobering. But the town is resilient, they said.

“Cedar Key has survived so many storms,” Callen said. “It survived the Civil War. The town will rebuild.”

Cedar Key City Commissioner Sue Colson drove by in her golf cart and stopped to chat.

“This is sad,” Colson said after surveying the damaged businesses on the waterfront. “It could have been worse. But there’s a lot of cleaning up to do.”

Powerful Hurricane Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach, Fla., on Wednesday morning before continuing into Georgia and South Carolina, generating tornadoes, dangerous flooding, and “life-threatening” winds in its wake, authorities said.

Idalia moved into Florida’s Big Bend region about 7:45 a.m. Eastern time as an “extremely dangerous” Category 3 storm, with winds approaching 125 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said, tying an 1896 hurricane as the strongest on record to hit that area. After coming ashore, Idalia turned northeastward and weakened in strength but was still expected to wreak havoc as a tropical storm in Georgia and the eastern Carolinas well into Thursday, forecasters said.

Two deaths were reported as of midafternoon, both in Florida and involving car crashes during the storm.

Heavy rainfall and widespread flooding were seen from Fort Myers Beach northward and in communities in southern Georgia, with officials expecting more flooding after the afternoon’s high tides. Both downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg saw a storm surge of around five feet. In St. Petersburg, the water level was the second highest on record, trailing only Hurricane Elena in 1985, data indicated.

Charter fishing captain Chase Norwood weathered Idalia at his family’s home on high ground overlooking their marina on the Steinhatchee River. His house and surrounding rental cabins were spared, but the rising river inundated some surrounding restaurants and other businesses as well as homes along the water. Several sailboats anchored in the river were hurled into a key bridge connecting Steinhatchee to neighboring Dixie County.

“It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it was still pretty bad,” Norwood said.

The National Hurricane Center warned Florida residents to prepare for long power outages and said some locations may be uninhabitable for several weeks or months. Parts of eastern Georgia and southeastern South Carolina also were likely to experience damaging winds that could put them in the dark. As of 6 p.m., according to the website, nearly 220,000 people in Florida and more than 230,000 in Georgia were without power.

Public utility crews were already trying to clear debris from downed trees, as state engineers began inspecting more than 1,000 bridges in the worst-hit Florida counties. Tourists in the Tampa area started venturing out to bars and restaurants that had closed as the storm advanced but were already reopening, even with surrounding streets still flooded.

Donnye Franklin helps a friend try to get the floodwaters from Hurricane Idalia out of his Explorer Manatee Tour store in Crystal River, Fla. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A house in Steinhatchee is surrounded by floodwaters. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

The paper mill town of Perry, with a population of 7,000, was not so lucky. Though it sits more than a dozen miles inland, Idalia’s winds had hurled massive pine and oak trees into the roofs of homes and businesses, downed power lines, and ruptured water pipes. Few residents had evacuated, and scary storm stories abounded, tales of ripped holes in ceilings and crushed cars.

The power was out, and so was water in some places. Yet with the skies clearing, chainsaws buzzed as residents and work crews started to remove debris. Hotels were packed with coastal evacuees.

“Not everybody has money for motels,” said Amanda Manning, 42, a housekeeper who opted to stay in her rental home after a tree fell on the roof. Beyond the expense, she stayed in place because her daughter had asthma. The 16-year-old needs to stay cool, which is nearly impossible now without air conditioning or fans in the cinder block ranch house.

“It’s a waiting process,” Manning said as she stood in a yard now strewn with tree limbs and shingles.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) visited Perry for a late-afternoon news conference about the damage and cleanup statewide. He noted that there are no indicators of a high death toll from the storm. During Hurricane Ian in 2022, he said, officials in southwest Florida’s Lee County received frantic 911 calls from people who were drowning in their homes. At least 144 people lost their lives. “We have not seen that in the same way on this storm,” DeSantis said.

Authorities were on guard given the flooding that was still expected — driven by higher-than-usual tides thanks to a rare blue supermoon set to rise a few hours later. Nevertheless, teens in some communities ignored the widespread storm surge warnings to film TikToks and other videos in floodwaters.

President Biden called DeSantis and the governors of surrounding states to show support, and directed federal agencies to position personnel and resources to aid response and recovery efforts in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the White House said.

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell was set to travel to Florida and join DeSantis on Thursday to view the damage firsthand, her office said. Criswell told reporters that she would report “back to the president exactly what I see, what we think the needs might be, and where the federal family can continue to assist.”

The hurricane disrupted travel plans across the South in advance of the coming Labor Day holiday weekend, with airlines canceling about 900 flights as Idalia closed in. Tampa International Airport reopened for flight arrivals only Wednesday afternoon and is expected to fully reopen by early Thursday. Both Gainesville Regional Airport and Tallahassee International Airport reopened, while Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia canceled flights in the afternoon for the rest of the day. Ports in Tallahassee and Manatee were undergoing damage assessments and will reopen once clear.

A road cuts through a flooded area south of Perry, Fla. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP/
People walk in floodwaters past a store in Crystal River. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Idalia came ashore in a low-population area of Florida — the five coastal counties along its path have a combined population of about 130,000 — which may keep fatalities to a lower number than Category 3 storms of the past, authorities said. Hurricane Ian, by contrast, last year hit the booming Southwest Florida coast, where the city of Fort Myers alone is home to about 92,000 people.

“We’re just waiting for the water to leave,” said Norwood, 23, as he surveyed the scene along his stretch of the Steinhatchee River. “We probably won’t do much work today. Tomorrow, we’ll probably start cleaning up.”

The scene was similar in Keaton Beach, not far from where Idalia officially made landfall. Mandy Adams, 42, a Floridian who works in logistics, had left her elevated beachfront home with her husband and two dogs and braced herself to face major destruction. Instead, she found a mud-coated patio.

“Keaton Beach took knuckles to the face and brushed it off,” she said while drinking a Modelo beer on her deck shortly after returning Wednesday. “I have never been so humbled in my whole life. It’s just a relief.”

On Cedar Key, an island in Florida’s Big Bend, a band of nearly 100 residents had been the focus of national media attention after they vowed to weather the storm, despite pleas from public safety officials to evacuate as Idalia appeared to be headed directly their way.

Those who did leave won’t be allowed to return to their homes until Thursday, though reports from the individuals sheltering in place were encouraging, said Phil Prescott, a deacon of the local Episcopal church and chaplain of Cedar Key’s fire and police departments. No deaths or injuries were reported.

“I can’t use the word relief, because there is so much damage. But there is the sense that it could have been worse,” Prescott said. “The whole island could have been destroyed.”

Storm surge that may have reached nearly nine feet in some parts of the town severely damaged several buildings. “There are businesses that might not open again,” he said, “and I know there will be people that will be displaced from their homes for a good period of time. So there are those grim realities.”

Florida’s Big Bend area is particularly vulnerable to storm surge because of the adjacent gently sloping sea floor, which makes it easy for water to pile up along the coast and penetrate miles inland.

Nature — birdwatching, fishing, hiking — is a major economic driver in the region. The area is often referred to as “the Nature Coast,” with multiple state and national wildlife areas, including the 83,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Apalachee Bay, south of Tallahassee. The refuge is the winter home of endangered whopping cranes and an important stopover for monarch butterflies.

After the storm moved through, officers from Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission launched rescue operations by boat for injured wildlife.

Tampa’s glitzy Bayshore Boulevard — home to million-dollar homes — attracted attention after being inundated by saltwater early Wednesday as the storm rolled through and little fish were pushed onto the pavement. Residents flocked outside to check it out.

Below a sky of gray clouds, the bay lapped at the concrete balustrades, sending spurts periodically onto the sidewalk. People walked their dogs and pushed their strollers right through the puddles.

Jennifer Kranz, 40, watched as her 9-year-old son and his friends played around the water pooling in a closed-off section of the street. They’d gotten lucky, she acknowledged. Idalia hadn’t scored a direct hit on her city. She planned to stick around and see — from a safe distance — how much of the bay would crash through the sea wall.

“The water is kind of yucky, huh?” she said as her boy ran over in his bright blue Crocs.

Across town, Meggie Castro, 34, watched as the water flooding her street crept up her driveway.

“It’s knocking at our front door,” the property manager said.

A fourth-generation Tampa native, she was used to storms — which was why Castro opted not to evacuate when the city urged people in her zone to seek higher ground. She parked her car in a safer spot, just in case she needed to escape when the supercharged high tide struck later in the day.

But for a moment, she chose not to stress and instead observe the wildlife. “All the birds at my feeder are stocking up,” she said.

@cbsnews Prior to making landfall in #Florida, Hurricane Idalia flooded part of a major state highway in Tampa that connects the city to St. Petersburg. #stpetersburg #tampa #hurricaneidalia #weather ♬ original sound - cbsnews
@jeff.emt #hurricane #hurricaneidalia #florida #floridapanhandle #gasstation #hurricanedamage #hurricsneseaon2023 #stormwatcher #tropicalstorm ♬ original sound - 🚨Jeff 🚒Theme Park EMT 🚑🚨

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