Hurricane Idalia blew through Florida early Wednesday, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands of residents and causing dangerous flooding in some areas hard hit by the massive storm.
But by late afternoon, much of the immediate crisis had passed. Tampa International Airport, which was closed in the lead up to the storm, was set to partially re-open Wednesday. Utility workers were seen fixing downed lines to restore power and road crews were clearing away debris. Many evacuation orders had been lifted and 30 of 52 school districts that shuttered will open Thursday.
In the immediate hours after the hurricane, authorities said there were no confirmed fatalities but cautioned that could change. Florida Highway Patrol troopers reported that two people died in crashes in Gainesville and Pasco County as the storm passed overhead, but Gov. Ron DeSantis said those deaths have not yet been added to the official count. He explained that each death that occurs during the storm is reviewed to see it was directly related to the storm.
The destruction from Wednesday’s hurricane stood in stark contrast to Hurricane Ian, one of the worst storms in U.S. history that left more than 140 people dead and caused billions of dollars in damage. Hurricane Ian left entire beach communities along Florida’s west coast in rubble and knocked out power to more than a million people.
“The bad news type calls that we were so accustomed to during [Hurricane Ian], those really were not happening in this storm. Certainly not to that level,” DeSantis said during a Wednesday night press conference.
Hurricane Idalia made landfall at 7:45 a.m. near Keaton Beach as a Category 3 storm and moved inland through north Florida and south Georgia. By about noon, the storm had left Florida and moved north to Georgia and the Carolinas. It weakened to a tropical storm as it crossed Georgia.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday spoke with DeSantis and other governors of states impacted by the hurricane and downplayed any questions that politics will play a role in the recovery effort.
“I think [DeSantis] trusts my judgment and my desire to help, and I trust him to be able to suggest that this is not about politics, this is about taking care of the people of his state,” Biden told reporters during a news conference at the White House.
During the Wednesday night press conference, Kevin Guthrie, executive director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, also mentioned the politicization of the hurricane response, saying to DeSantis: “I know you’ve taken some flak about whether or not you’ve been here or not, so let me go ahead and say for everybody, he’s been here since 4 a.m. this morning.”
The Biden administration has mobilized 1,500 federal personnel, more than 540 search and rescue workers and three disaster strike teams to assist states in Idalia’s path, according to a FEMA news release on Wednesday. The agency also said it had staged before the storm’s landfall more than 1.3 million meals and 1.6 million liters to distribute to states in need.
Authorities on Wednesday afternoon were still assessing the damage Hurricane Idalia caused throughout Florida. Guthrie said several businesses caught fire in Perry County and debris was strewn throughout Taylor County. The governor also confirmed that a tree had fallen on or near the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee while his wife Casey and three children were at home. No one was harmed.
Guthrie said his office also will finalize the state’s application with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for an expedited disaster declaration. The request is a significant step taken by the state to access billions in federal disaster recovery funding.
More than 245,000 customers were without electricity as trees snapped by strong winds brought down power lines and rushing water covered streets. Along the coast, some homes were submerged to near their rooftops and structures crumpled. As the eye moved inland, destructive winds shredded signs and sent sheet metal flying.
According to the state Agency for Health Care Administration, a total of 91 health care facilities had alerted the agency about plans to evacuate before the storm as of Wednesday afternoon. A tally of the number of patients that were evacuated was not immediately available, but AHCA spokesperson Bailey Smith said although some of those facilities may have alerted plans to evacuate patients, they may not have carried out those plans as the storm shifted course.
Fallen trees from the storm also left a stretch of Interstate 10 in Madison County closed until it could be cleared by the Florida Department of Transportation. FDOT Secretary Jared Perdue said other important roadways, such as the road to the storm-battered Cedar Key, have since been cleared of debris.
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