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‘Unprecedented event’ as Hurricane Idalia makes landfall in Florida

Hurricane Idalia’s 125 mph winds, torrential rains and surging seawater were battering Florida’s Gulf Coast early on Wednesday in an “unprecedented event” in the state’s Big Bend area as the category 3 hurricane made landfall.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis warned of a catastrophic impact from the cyclone as he urged residents who had not heeded evacuation orders to shelter in place. Quickly deteriorating conditions, he told a pre-dawn press conference, would make it too dangerous for emergency crews to respond.

“Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point,” he said.

“This thing’s powerful. If you’re inside, hunker down until it gets past you. You don’t want to be messing around with these winds. There’s going to be things flying all over the place.”

Idalia, which powered up into a category 4 storm with sustained winds of 130mph and gusts up to 160mph before weakening slightly as it approached the coast, made landfall shortly before 8am ET. It is the most powerful storm ever to hit the state’s Big Bend region, the section of the west side of Florida where the northern part of the peninsula meets the panhandle region, an area of dominated more by nature reserves and rural communities than cities.

The National Hurricane Center, based in Miami, said Idalia’s eyewall crossed the coast at Keaton Beach, an exposed town on the Gulf of Mexico about 75 miles south-east of Tallahassee, the state capital, and 185 miles north-west of Tampa.

The storm had rapidly intensified overnight, fueled by the record hot waters in the gulf. Studies have shown evidence that Atlantic hurricanes are becoming stronger and intensifying more rapidly due to these accelerants resulting from the climate crisis.

No major hurricane, classed as a category 3 storm with 111mph winds or higher, had previously hit Florida’s Big Bend, a marshy coast, threaded with freshwater springs and rivers, and a cluster of small offshore islands forming Cedar Key, an historic fishing village devastated in 1896 by a hurricane’s storm surge.

It is also the third hurricane to make a direct hit on Florida in 12 months after Ian last September and Nicole in November.

The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called it “an unprecedented event”, and DeSantis and emergency management officials warned of a storm surge, heightened by a 4am high tide, of up to 16ft in the hurricane’s direct path.

Effects were also being felt far from the storm’s center, with some areas in Tampa Bay 200 miles to the south experiencing flooding. More than 135,000 customers in Florida were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us.

Mandatory evacuation orders were issued in at least 28 of Florida’s 67 counties as of Tuesday night. Most of the state’s 21 million residents, and many in the adjacent states of Georgia and South Carolina, were under hurricane warnings and other storm-related advisories. State emergency declarations were issued in all three.

“They’re expecting some fatalities, so I don’t want to be one of them,” said Rene Hoffman, 62, of Steinhatchee, Florida, a coastal town 20 miles from Keaton Beach. She owns a food stand that she lashed to her husband’s pickup truck to keep it from washing or blowing away.

“This is scary, you know, to think that water could come this high,” she said as she gathered her prescription medications and prepared to leave her home. “We’ve never had water up here before.“

Joe Biden said he and DeSantis were “in constant contact,” adding that he had assured the governor federal disaster assistance would remain in place for as “long as it takes, and we’ll make sure they have everything they need.”

Biden and the hard-right Republican governor are used to clashing fiercely over politics but abandon the sparring when natural disaster strikes.

Gulf energy producers were taking precautions as well. US oil company Chevron evacuated staff from three oil production platforms, while Kinder Morgan planned to shut a petroleum pipeline.

Idalia-related disruptions extended to thousands of commercial passenger flights and also, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, at Cape Canaveral, where the Tuesday launch of a rocket carrying a US Space Force intelligence satellite was delayed indefinitely.

Idalia grew from a tropical storm into a hurricane early on Tuesday, a day after passing west of Cuba, where it damaged homes and flooded villages.

Florida’s Gulf coast, along with south-eastern Georgia and eastern portions of North and South Carolina could face torrential rains of 4 to 8in through Thursday, with isolated areas seeing as much as 12in , the hurricane center warned.

Surge warnings were posted for hundreds of miles of shoreline, from Sarasota to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay. In some areas, the surge of water could rise 10 to 15 feet, the NHC said.

“The No 1 killer in all of these storms is water,” Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, said on CNN.

More than 40 school districts in Florida canceled classes, DeSantis said. Tampa airport closed to commercial operations with plans to reopen on Thursday.

About 5,500 national guard troops were mobilized, while 30,000 to 40,000 electricity workers were placed on standby. The state has set aside 1.1 million gallons of gasoline to address any interruptions to fuel supplies, the governor added.

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