Hurricane Idalia made landfall last Wednesday with all eyes watching, briefly strengthening to a Category 4 storm and changing course to keep locals guessing.
Days prior to the storm, models showed her path tracking more to the east and targeting Alachua County, with potential landfall at Cedar Key. Officials warned of sustained hurricane force winds (74 miles per hour or above), gusts up to 110 miles per hour, and 4 to 7 inches of rainfall.
But things shifted shortly before Idalia came ashore. The National Hurricane Center’s updated models on Tuesday showed only a part of Alachua County inside Idalia’s cone and the 5 p.m. update shifted the cone even further north and west, keeping all of Alachua County and even neighboring Gilchrist County outside the path.
“We all were just watching the monitors and listening to those briefings every couple of hours,” said Mark Sexton, spokesperson for Alachua County. “At one point, we thought, ‘OK, that’s it, it’s coming. It’s getting us, it’s hitting us.’ And then, at the 11th hour, it was just off and went to the north.”
Instead, Taylor County became ground zero. Hitting the Big Bend region where the Panhandle curves down toward South Florida, Idalia left hundreds of thousands without power, snapped stop signs, toppled communications towers and blew over a gas station canopy.
Alachua County sent out a mandatory evacuation notice for mobile, manufactured and substandard homes along with flood prone areas—the first mandatory order since Sexton started with the county 19 years ago.
Weather models showed a storm worse than any seen in the county for 100 years, but sustained winds never quite reached tropical storm level after the westward shift 12 hours before landfall.
In Lake City, Gov. Ron DeSantis warned of the shift at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. He said the updated models would show the change along with an increase in storm surge.
“This storm is going to impact inland counties, and, particularly in northern Florida, you are going to see significant impacts,” DeSantis said. “The contours of that will obviously be determined by the exact path of the storm.”
Even a county-breadth away from the cone, Alachua County Public Works cleared 70 fallen trees from roadways. Gainesville Regional Utilities reported around 8,000 customers without power at the worst point and restored electricity to all but 2,500 within an hour.
“That’s a testament to the value of investing in a great municipal utility as we have done over the years,” Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward told Mainstreet in a text message. “Our emergency response teams across city government responded exactly as trained and we should all be proud of them.”
However, electricity across the area was vulnerable: Some Melrose residents went without power for 10 hours.
According to poweroutage.us, more than 96% of tracked customers in Taylor, Suwannee, Madison and Jefferson counties still lacked power 36 hours after landfall.
Sexton said winds never caused conditions too dangerous for crews to operate. As trees fell, county employees could respond instead of sheltering in place and allowing downed trees to stack up.
Because of the lighter damage, Alachua County and Gainesville dispatched aid to surrounding areas within hours of landfall. Gainesville Fire Rescue deployed eight staffers to join Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 8, and Alachua County sent a portable radio system to Cedar Key.
Cedar Key gained national attention during the storm, both because models slated Idalia to land there and because Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel did land there.
Cantore, who has gained a significant following as he travels to report on major weather events, landed in Gainesville on Monday before heading to Cedar Key and sheltering at a UF/IFAS facility within feet of the gulf.
While landfall shifted north, Cedar Key still got hammered with 7 feet of storm surge, a record for the island community. Mandatory evacuations were ordered for the community of 700, but 100 residents decided to stay at their homes.
Levy County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Lt. Scott Tummond told Mainstreet that Cedar Key and the rest of the county had no fatalities. The office coordinated a reentry plan for the town, blocking the bridge entrance until Thursday around noon and asking residents to wait.
The Cedar Key Fire Rescue posted on social media as the storm surge began flooding streets.
“Most of the streets around the downtown area are underwater,” the department said in a post. “We cannot get out at this time to see just how bad things are. Please do not come to Cedar Key.”
Another post said: “We have propane tanks blowing off all over the island. Do not drive, do not come out. We cannot get to them at this time.”
The island remained without power for more than 12 hours and lacked water and wastewater, falling under a boil notice the next day.
The saltwater covered electrical boxes, causing many to short once electricity returned and leaving blackened hulls.
The Mutual Aid Radio Communications system Alachua County sent provides power, phone connection, internet and more as rescue workers assessed the hardest-hit areas.
“In the digital age we’re in, everybody needs access to internet, email and data,” Kevin Rulapaugh, district chief for Alachua County Fire Rescue, told Mainstreet.
In Levy County, shelters housed 260 citizens during the storm. In Alachua County, Sexton said all the shelters contained 100 total residents.
He said Hurricane Idalia ended up as excellent training for when a big storm might target the county. He said the county and cities were prepared to establish water and food supply areas and bought thousands of ready-made meals from the state.
Officials often hear feedback from both sides after a storm. Sexton said some residents accuse the messaging of being too strong while others say it wasn’t strong enough. But, the emergency personnel will always side with caution, Sexton said.
He said he doesn’t worry about residents ignoring future warnings.
“We respect our residents and know that they have discernment and that the vast majority of them understand why we react like we do,” Sexton said.
On Thursday, President Joe Biden issued a major disaster declaration for seven counties, including Levy, Dixie and Suwannee, opening up FEMA funding for 30 days. Gov. Ron DeSantis, requested the federal declaration for 25 counties, including Alachua County, but the governor’s office said the declaration could be expanded once additional damage assessments are completed.