TAMPA, Fla. — Florida residents loaded up on sandbags and evacuated from homes in low-lying areas along the Gulf Coast as Tropical Storm Idalia intensified Monday and forecasters predicted it would hit within days as a major hurricane with potentially life-threatening storm surges.
Idalia is expected to start affecting Florida with hurricane-force winds as soon as late Tuesday, Aug. 29, and arrive on the coast by Wednesday. It is the first storm to hit Florida this hurricane season and a potentially big blow to the state, which is also still recovering from Ian.
“Just got to prepare for these things, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst and, you know, hunker down, as they say,” said Derek Hughes as he waited to load up his car with sandbags at a city park in Tampa. “Worst case is flooding right now. Hopefully not too much wind damage.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in 46 counties, a broad swath that stretches across the northern half of the state from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Coast. The state has mobilized 1,100 National Guard members, who have 2,400 high-water vehicles and 12 aircraft at their disposal for rescue and recovery efforts. Tampa International Airport and St.Pete-Clearwater International Airport said they would close on Tuesday.
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, certain guidelines governing commercial vehicles have been temporarily waived, including hours-of-service and licensing and registration requirements under the International Fuel Tax Agreement and the International Registration Plan.
Additionally, registration has been waived for CMVs entering the state to provide emergency services or supplies or to transport emergency equipment, supplies or personnel.
Drivers operating for a motor carrier operating under this order must have a copy of it in their possession. This regulatory relief is only granted to those who are in direct assistance and terminated when a driver or CMV is used in commerce to transport cargo or provide services not directly related to emergency relief.
Meanwhile, DeSantis warned of a “major impact” to the state, noting that what was originally forecast to be nothing stronger than a tropical storm was now predicted to become a Category 3 hurricane.
“The property — we can rebuild someone’s home,” DeSantis said during a news conference Monday. “You can’t unring the bell, though, if somebody stays in harm’s way and does battle with Mother Nature. This is not something that you want to do battle with.”
Large parts of the western coast of Florida are at risk of storm surges and floods anytime a storm of this magnitude approaches. Pasco and Levy counties, located north of Tampa, both ordered mandatory evacuations for some residents deemed to be at risk. In Levy County, officials said residents of Cedar Key must be off the island by Tuesday evening because storm surges would make bridges impassable.
“Once the storm surge comes in, help may not be available to reach you,” the county said in a notice.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami issued a hurricane warning Monday from Longboat Key in the Sarasota area to the Holocene River, up past Tampa Bay.
Many school districts along the Gulf Coast said they would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg told students they needed to leave campus by Monday night.
“They told us that our dorm building, especially, is prone to flooding,” said student Erin Amiss.
Tampa resident Grace Cruz, who has lived in the state for more than 40 years, put away patio furniture, filled her car up with gas and loaded up on sandbags. She worried about the tens of thousands of new residents to Florida who had never before experienced a hurricane, and she had some advice for them.
“If you’re planning to get away, you start ahead of time because of the traffic,” Cruz said. “No kidding. It’s horrible.”
President Joe Biden spoke to DeSantis on Monday morning, telling the Florida governor that he had approved an emergency declaration for the state, the White House said in a news release. The declaration frees up federal funds to help with cleanup and repairs. DeSantis is running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
At 2 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time Monday, the storm was about 50 miles off the western tip of Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph, the hurricane center said. Idalia was moving north at 8 mph. On Tuesday, it was expected to turn northeast at a faster pace, reaching Florida’s western coast as a dangerous major hurricane on Wednesday.
So far this year, the U.S. East Coast has been spared from cyclones. But in the West, Tropical Storm Hilary caused widespread flooding, mudslides and road closures earlier this month in Mexico, California, Nevada and points to the north.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently said the 2023 hurricane season would be far busier than initially forecast, partly because of extremely warm ocean temperatures. The season runs through Nov. 30, with August and September typically the peak.
The Trucker Staff contributed to this report.
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