Florida could see an even stronger hurricane this week than initially predicted, bringing dangerous winds and life-threatening storm surge to much of the state’s west coast.
Tropical Storm Idalia strengthened faster than expected overnight, giving it more time to cook as it travels north over the bathtub-warm conditions of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s expected to become a hurricane later Monday.
The National Hurricane Center’s latest forecast called for the storm to hit Florida’s Big Bend area early Wednesday as a Category 3 hurricane, bringing 115 mph sustained winds and — most dangerously — up to 11 feet of storm surge.
Nearly the entire west coast remained under hurricane, tropical storm and storm surge warnings Monday morning, as well as a state of emergency declared by the governor, who directed state agencies to begin preparing for the storm over the weekend.
Evacuation orders for some coastal counties, particularly those under hurricane warnings, could begin on Monday.
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After dawdling near the Yucatan Peninsula for more than a day, upper-level air currents shifted Monday, giving Tropical Storm Idalia a push north into the Gulf of Mexico. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf are warmer than average, which forecasters expect will fuel Idalia into a Category 3 hurricane before it crosses Florida.
The Monday morning forecast calls for a landfall near Cedar Key, another eastern shift in the track. Forecasters warned that the track will continue to flip-flop east and west as the storm approaches, so anyone in a hurricane or tropical storm watch area should be prepared for a storm.
“It should be emphasized that only a small deviation in the track could cause a big change in Idalia’s landfall location in Florida due to the paralleling track to the west coast of the state,” forecasters warned.
And it could be a very powerful storm.
The hurricane center now forecasts that Idalia will get much stronger, much faster — a process called rapid intensification. The majority of strong storms rapidly intensify just before landfall, which it now looks like Idalia will do.
“The bottom line is that rapid intensification is becoming increasingly likely before landfall, and the NHC forecast now explicitly indicates it between 24-48 h in the forecast,” forecasters wrote in the 5 a.m. discussion.
As of the 8 a.m. update, Idalia was about 90 miles south of the western tip of Cuba, with maximum sustained winds around 65 mph and headed north at 8 mph. Tropical storm force winds extended outward up to 70 miles from the center.
READ MORE: How will Tropical Storm Idalia affect South Florida weather? What the forecast says
Storm surge biggest risk
While Idalia could come ashore with 110 mph sustained winds, the biggest threat to the coast is likely to be storm surge. Coastal Taylor, Dixie, Levy and Citrus counties could see 7 to 11 feet of surge, which is water above ground level.
The Tampa Bay area could see four to seven feet of surge, a potentially record-breaking level for a region that hasn’t had a direct hurricane impact in almost a century.
Storm surge is the deadliest impact of a storm, and was the No. 1 cause of death during Hurricane Ian last year.
A storm surge watch, as well as a tropical storm watch, stretched from Cape San Blas in Gulf County down to the Florida Keys. The Dry Tortugas, at the very tip of the Keys, were under a tropical storm warning Monday morning.
Beyond surge, Idalia is expected to douse the state with quite a bit of rain, nearly 10 inches in the Big Bend and Tampa Bay area.
South Florida could see two to four inches of rain through Saturday. Combined with the season’s first king tide on Wednesday, the highest annual tides of the year, it could spell flooding.
The southern tip of the state could start feeling Idalia’s winds as early as Tuesday evening, but they’re expected to pick up tremendously overnight and into Wednesday as landfall approaches.
Hurricane Franklin and more
The hurricane center was also tracking Hurricane Franklin, which just became the first major hurricane of the season, and a disturbance in the east Atlantic.
Franklin rapidly strengthened overnight from a Category 2 storm to a Category 4 storm Monday morning with 130 mph maximum sustained winds. On its track, which keeps it far from the U.S. Atlantic coast, it was expected to hold this strength through the middle of the week, when it scrapes Bermuda.
As of Monday morning, a tropical wave set to roll off Africa’s west coast had a slightly higher chance of forming this week — zero chance for the next two days and a 40% shot in the next seven.