Idalia weakened to a tropical storm Wednesday evening as it dumped heavy rain, unleashed strong winds and knocked out power in parts of southern Georgia and the Carolinas, just hours after pummeling Florida’s west coast and inundating communities there with floodwater.
As the storm moved through South Carolina Wednesday night, the water level at the Charleston Harbor was higher than 9 feet, the National Weather Service said – making it the fifth highest water level ever recorded and only slightly lower than levels reached during Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017.
“Major coastal inundation being reported at Edisto Beach and Downtown Charleston,” the weather service said. “Water has breached the Charleston Battery. Dunes are breached at Edisto with water flowing under homes and onto roadways.”
Some roads were closed due to flooding, Charleston police said, and access to some areas was limited.
“Trees are down. Roads are flooded,” the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office said. “If you encounter street flooding, turn around.”
“All the homes around us,” Frink said, were “all underwater.”
In nearby coastal Pasco County, just north of Tampa, roughly 6,000 homes were “inundated with water,” according to one official.
President Joe Biden said Wednesday he has offered governors across the Southeast “anything their states need” to respond to the storm, and, speaking more widely on the country’s recent natural disasters, said: “I don’t think anybody can deny the impact of the climate crisis anymore.”
What to expect Wednesday night
As of 11 p.m. ET Wednesday, the storm’s center was roughly 15 miles north-northwest of Charleston, South Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph, the National Hurricane Center said.
Coastal and river flooding threats remained for parts of Georgia and the Carolinas into early Thursday, the National Weather Service warned.
Idalia’s center will move near or along South Carolina’s coast through Wednesday night before moving offshore near North Carolina’s coast Thursday, the center said.
Up to 10 inches of rain could drop over parts of east-central Georgia to central and eastern South Carolina and through eastern North Carolina into Thursday, the hurricane center said.
“These rainfall amounts will lead to areas of flash, urban, and moderate river flooding, with considerable impacts,” the center added.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Idalia’s rain stretched 600 miles, spanning central Florida to central North Carolina, while the storm’s strong winds affected more than 300 miles of that area.
Tornadoes are also possible through daybreak Thursday across coastal North Carolina, the hurricane center said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday there was “one unconfirmed fatality” in the storm’s aftermath.
Earlier, Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said two men were killed in two separate accidents Wednesday morning during severe storm conditions from Idalia.
Gaskins said both deaths were weather-related. It’s unclear if DeSantis is talking about one of these crashes.
A tree fell on a man who had been cutting another tree that was on a highway, killing him, Paulk said.
Earlier Wednesday, local officials had warned “it is very dangerous out,” urging residents to stay inside.
“We cannot stress this enough, trees and power lines are down all across Lowndes County, please stay off of the streets unless it’s an emergency,” county leaders wrote on Facebook.
In Florida, urban search and rescue personnel have sifted through roughly 75% of the areas hit by the storm, Florida Division of Emergency Management Executive Director Kevin Guthrie said in a Wednesday evening news conference. Secondary searches will begin for heavily impacted areas to “ensure that those have been cleared and there’s nobody there,” Guthrie said.
“We are not finding anybody at home,” he added. “Many, many people heeded the warnings to evacuate and we, so far, have not had any reports of … fatalities related to any drowning or any flooding.” Evacuation orders, some mandatory, were issued in at least 28 Florida counties.
Danger is not over, Florida officials warn
In storm-ravaged Florida Wednesday evening, authorities were working to restore roads, deploying crews across hard-hit neighborhoods and warning residents to stay vigilant.
Taylor County Sheriff Wayne Padgett urged residents Wednesday to stay inside, noting downed trees and power lines can be dangerous, and said people walking around can interfere with rescue and clean-up efforts.
In Pasco County, authorities conducted more than 80 rescue missions, saving at least 150 people – ranging from just days old to 90 – from floodwaters, local leaders said in a Facebook post.
He said people chose to stay put for a variety of reasons, including one woman who told officials she didn’t have money or a place to go, while another family wanted to protect their belongings and memories.
“Don’t get out onto that water, because it is salt water mixed in with a lot of other things,” the sheriff said.
“It’s going to destroy your vehicles, and then it’s going to give you a costly repair bill whenever you get past the storm.”
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Late Wednesday, more than 150,000 customers remained without power in Florida, and another 145,000 in Georgia, and 36,000 in South Carolina, according to PowerOutage.us.
On Wednesday evening, boil water notices were issued for areas across DeSoto, Dixie, Leon, Levy, Marion and Taylor counties, according to Florida’s health department.
Ten Florida hospitals that were evacuated ahead of the storm reported minimal damage and nine of those expect to be “at full operational status within the next 24 hours,” DeSantis said at Wednesday evening’s news conference.
And at least 30 of 52 school districts that closed because of the storm will be open again Thursday, the governor said, and an additional eight will reopen Friday.
Authorities will soon begin conducting initial assessments to try and determine the costs of the storm’s damage, Guthrie said.
Eight feet of water inside a City Hall
Idalia slammed Florida’s Big Bend area – the nook between the panhandle and peninsula – near Keaton Beach Wednesday morning at a dangerous Category 3 strength. That part of the Gulf Coast hasn’t seen such deadly storm surge and wind gust for at least 125 years.
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In the vulnerable island city of Cedar Key, a water level record was shattered amid 8 to 9 feet of storm surge.
Cedar Key looked “almost apocalyptic” even before landfall, resident Michael Bobbitt said Wednesday morning. Hours later, the disastrous storm surge had overwhelmed it.
Lifelong Floridian Bobby Witt, who decided to ride out the storm on a boat in Cedar Key, said the storm surge was higher than he expected, and the storm was the worst he’s experienced.
Storm surge accounts for about half of all hurricane-related deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
In Crystal River, authorities spent much of Wednesday conducting rescues and pulling people out of their homes, City Manager Doug Baber told Hill Wednesday night.
“Now we’re moving on to the next step, which is how we’re going to rebuild. Crystal River was decimated,” Baber said. “We had 8 feet of storm surge come inside City Hall. It’s gone.”
Swaths of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Fort Myers Beach were also engulfed by wind-whipped seawater and torrential rain.