Tropical Storm Idalia on Thursday inundated the Carolinas with torrential rains that threatened to trigger dangerous flash flooding while Florida’s Gulf Coast began recovery efforts after the system tore through the region as a Category 3 hurricane.
The backend of the storm was producing heavy downpours that could amount to 9 inches (23 cm) in some spots along the region’s coastline early on Thursday, the National Weather Service said.
The service warned of possible life-threatening flash flooding, especially in low-lying areas and along rivers, through the morning and into the afternoon. Storm surge warnings were also in effect for several oceanfront communities as heavy rains and fierce winds remained in the forecast.
“Driving conditions may become dangerous,” the service said in an advisory, urging residents to remain vigilant after many motorists became stranded on Wednesday. “Extreme rainfall rates could result in urban and flash flooding which may prompt water rescues.”
As of Thursday morning, the storm was about 65 miles (105 km) southwest of Wilmington, North Carolina, carrying winds of 60 mph as it drifted northeast. Idalia was expected to curl eastward and out into the Atlantic on Thursday night.
The rough conditions in the Carolinas come a day after Idalia crashed ashore at Keaton Beach in Florida’s Big Bend region, lashing the coast with sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour (201 kph), torrential rains and pounding surf.
Local, state and federal authorities will assess the full extent of damage in the days ahead. Insured property losses in Florida were projected to run $9.36 billion, investment bank UBS said in a research note.
While coastal communities sustained major damage, Idalia appeared to have been far less destructive than Hurricane Ian, a Category 5 storm that struck Florida last September, killing 150 people and causing $112 billion in damage.
“The community is resilient and we are going to work hard to make sure people get what they need,” Governor Ron DeSantis said during a news briefing on Thursday.
Florida has requested a major disaster declaration from the federal government for all 25 counties that fell under the hurricane warning, he said.
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said during the news briefing that she would tour the area with DeSantis to assess the damage and that the governor and U.S. President Joe Biden have remained in close contact.
The surge of storm-driven seawater that accompanied Idalia rushed inland for miles, flooding low-lying communities and roadways in its path. No deaths had been reported from the storm surge, considered the greatest hazard posed by major hurricanes.
Florida Highway Patrol reported that two motorists had died in separate rain-related crashes early Wednesday before Idalia made landfall. DeSantis later said state authorities were investigating one unconfirmed storm-related traffic death.
In Taylor and Hernando counties, National Guard troops pulled stranded motorists to safety on Wednesday, while emergency teams plying submerged streets in boats rescued dozens of people from floodwaters in St. Petersburg, about 200 miles south of landfall.
Boat rescues also took place in at least one town in the neighboring state of Georgia, which a weakened Idalia strafed as it pushed northward out of Florida.
Electricity outages from fallen trees, utility poles and power lines were widespread. In all, more than 283,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas early on Thursday, according to Poweroutage.us.
Florida officials said crews would restore most of the state’s power outages within 48 hours.
The heart of the state’s rural Big Bend region – where its northern Gulf Coast panhandle curves into the Florida Peninsula – bore the brunt of the storm.
Idalia left a tableau of toppled houses and destroyed vehicles in its wake, but overall the destruction was not as severe as feared.
John “Sparky” Abrandt, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in Horseshoe Beach, about 30 miles south of landfall, said he felt relieved when he saw the damage to his home, even though the windows were blown out and household items were scattered about.
“I’m feeling great. The house is still here,” he said.
The state’s priorities in hard-hit areas were restoring traffic signals, clearing debris and bringing in more portable generators, said Jared Perdue, who heads the state’s Transportation Department.
All state bridges in storm-stricken areas had been found to be structurally sound. A total of 30 of the 52 school districts that closed ahead of the storm reopened on Thursday, officials said. Eight others were expected to resume classes on Friday.
While Idalia proved less formidable than was feared, it highlighted a trend of cyclonic storms that tend to intensify rapidly, a phenomenon scientists say is symptomatic of climate change.
Feeding on the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Idalia quickly gained strength as it churned toward Florida after skirting the western tip of Cuba on Monday as a tropical storm.
It reached hurricane status on Tuesday and attained Category 4 intensity on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale early Wednesday shortly before landfall but had weakened into Category 3 by the time it entered the Florida mainland.