Dramatic images show people swimming through floods waters and whole areas submerged as Hurricane Idalia hit Florida and a large stretch of the Gulf Coast, in what has been described as an “unprecedented event”.
The area was battered by the hurricane, which reached category 4 earlier on Wednesday, before later being downgraded to a category one hurricane when it reached the state capital, Tallahassee.
It turned roads into rivers, unmoored small boats and left more than 330,000 people without power in Florida and Georgia as trees snapped by strong winds of up to 125mph brought down power lines and rushing water covered streets. More than 850 flights were suspended, with several airports closed.
Two deaths were reported by police in Florida as a result of weather-related crashes, but the state Governor, Ron DeSantis, later said these were unconfirmed.
“This thing’s powerful. If you’re inside, just 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,” Mr DeSantis said. “We just hope everybody stays safe. Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb.”
The Florida governor’s wife shared a photo of a century-old oak tree that had fallen onto the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. Casey DeSantis said the family was home at the time but nobody was injured.
By midmorning, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather monitoring station in Steinhatchee, 20 miles south of Keaton in the north of Florida, showed waters reaching eight feet, well above the 6-foot flood stage.
Along the coast, some homes were submerged to near their rooftops and structures crumpled. As the hurricane’s eye moved inland, destructive winds shredded signs and sent sheet metal flying.
Idalia came ashore in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula.
It made landfall as a high-end category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds near 125mph.
The state of South Carolina is next in the storm’s path.
The fire and rescue department on the island of Cedar Key described fallen trees and debris on the roads as it told the public earlier on Wednesday: “Do not come”.
“We have propane tanks blowing up all over the island,” they said.
The National Weather Service in Tallahassee called Idalia “an unprecedented event” since no major hurricanes on record have ever passed through the bay abutting the Big Bend.
Forecasters said it would hit the Carolinas overnight as a tropical storm. Some models predicted Idalia could circle southward toward land again after that, but the National Hurricane Center forecast it to move deeper into the Atlantic this weekend.
Diane Flowers was sound asleep at 1am Wednesday in her Wakulla County home, but her husband was up watching the weather on TV, and got a text from their son when the storm was upgraded to a category 4. He’s a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Franklin County, which is also along the Gulf Coast.
“He said, ‘You guys need to leave,’” Ms Flowers said. “And he’s not one for overreacting, so when he told us to leave, we just packed our stuff, got in our car and got going.”
They quickly packed a few clothes, medicine, dog food for their two border collies, a computer, important documents and a bag of Cheetos.
Motels were packed all the way into Alabama, where they ended up finding a room in Dothan.
Additional reporting by agencies