Idalia is the second major hurricane to hit the region this year, though early reports suggest it has been far less destructive than initially predicted.
Hurricane Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach in Florida’s Big Bend region on Wednesday morning with maximum sustained winds of about 125 mph (201 kph) and torrential rains, before weakening and moving toward southeastern Georgia, where floodwaters trapped dozens of residents in their homes.
Though authorities are still assessing the full extent of damage in the hardest-hit areas, it appears the powerful hurricane was far less destructive than initially predicted.
Over 250,000 homes and businesses in Florida and more than 217,000 in Georgia were left without power on Wednesday, with authorities scrambling to bring it back as quickly as possible. As of 10 p.m. EDT (2 a.m. GMT), 173,999 and 165,911 households were still without power in the two states, respectively, according to data from PowerOutage.us.
“The weather impact was not as severe as anticipated, and our crews were able to work through the night to restore customers during the storm,” said Archie Collins, president and CEO of Tampa Electric.
Three international airports in Florida’s Tampa, Clearwater, and Tallahassee shut down operations and were monitoring the situation. Airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights across the US while about 2,000 flights were delayed.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management ordered evacuations in 28 of Florida’s 67 counties on Tuesday in anticipation of a dangerous surge of tidal water, 16 of which were mandatory for certain residents living in flood-prone coastal areas, mobile homes, or structurally unsound housing.
Officials in St. Petersburg, Florida, said their fire team rescued at least 75 people from floodwaters, with a video shared on Twitter showing two emergency responders on a small boat moving through submerged streets as heavy rain pours down.
Speaking from Taylor County on Wednesday afternoon, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said no hurricane fatalities had been confirmed as most residents in vulnerable, low-lying areas had heeded evacuation orders and warnings to move to higher ground, though the state’s highway patrol reported two motorists died in separate rain-related crashes on Wednesday morning.
A Climate Change-Fuelled Hurricane
After leaving western Cuba on Monday as a tropical storm, Idalia gained strength rapidly in the Gulf of Mexico as it made its way up to Florida, feeding on the Gulf’s warm, open waters and humid air, two of the main ingredients for hurricanes to develop and intensify. Indeed, as the storms travel across warm oceans, they pull in more water vapour and heat, resulting in stronger wind, heavier rainfall, and more flooding when the storms make landfall.
Speaking on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said no one could deny that the world is facing a climate crisis.
“I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “Just look around. Historic floods. I mean, historic floods. More intense droughts, extreme heat, significant wildfires have caused significant damage.”
There is no doubt among the scientific community that warming oceans are fuelling stronger tropical cyclones – the most costly and deadly weather disasters in the US. Worldwide, surface ocean temperatures have been exceptionally high this year, with temperatures in the Florida Feys reaching hot tub levels.
About 80% of major hurricanes (category 3-5) undergo rapid intensification, just like Hurricane Idalia, making it challenging to forecast their trajectory and thus issue timely evacuation orders and alerts across communities, risking a higher number of fatalities. The world has already warmed 1.1C above the preindustrial levels. At 2C of warming, scientists at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expect that hurricane wind speeds could increase by up to 10%.
Simply put, hurricanes could be stronger, wetter, and likelier to cause floods, especially when combined with sea level rise.
Just a few inches of sea level increase allows hurricanes to push more water onto land, even if they do not make landfall. One such example was the devastating Hurricane Irma, which has gone down in history as the most costly storm in the history of Florida, costing the state almost USD$50 billion in damages. A study found that a 15 inch increase in nearby sea levels – a scenario that is extremely likely to occur in 50 years’ time – would have resulted in a 150% increase in the number of homes impacted by Irma’s storm surge. Thankfully, sea levels were not as high when the storm hit Florida in 2017. This however, should serve as an explicit warning of the exponentially higher impact that extreme weather events will take place in the future.
More on the topic: The Rising Threat of Sea Level Rise in Florida