Idalia is now on its way into the Atlantic Ocean as a post-tropical cyclone, but the once- Category 3 hurricane carved a path of destruction in the Southeast United States this week after making landfall Wednesday morning in Florida.
The storm first hit Florida’s Gulf Coast with wind speeds of up to 125 mph, tying it as the strongest hurricane to hit the region since an unnamed Category 3 storm in 1896, reported The Weather Channel. Thousands of customers in the northeastern part of the state are still without power as of Thursday night, and many are still recovering from devastating flooding.
Idalia continued as a hurricane as it moved into Georgia by Wednesday afternoon, and was eventually demoted to a tropical storm by the time it reached the Carolinas. But residents along the Southeast Coast were not spared from potent storm surges and heavy rainfall, as videos Wednesday night showed parts of South Carolina’s coast engulfed by seawater.
“It seems like a broken record to be talking about a rapidly intensifying hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico targeting the Gulf Coast,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy DeHart, a meteorologist and hurricane hunter for the Air Force Reserve 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron (WRS) who spoke with Newsweek Thursday via email.
“We’ve seen our share of those in recent years,” DeHart continued. “But each storm is different and has a different feel.”
As a hurricane hunter, DeHart is tasked with gathering data about the storms that he said “would be otherwise unattainable” for forecasters, such as wind speeds, pressure and moisture content from “flight level down to the sea surface.” The information collected on the Reserve’s aircraft, such as the WC-130J, is then transmitted to places like the National Hurricane Center and other agencies that issue watches, warnings and advisories.
“We are the most important tool in the arsenal for providing this critical data,” DeHart added.
The 53rd WRS is not new to covering major hurricanes—DeHart noted Hurricanes Harvey and Sally that destroyed parts of the Gulf Coast in recent years. But while each carries a new threat, DeHart said that one part he is always stunned to witness is the amount of flooding that accompanies significant storms.
“I’m always amazed at the high storm surge values we keep seeing with these major hurricanes, that seems to be a consistent theme across the board,” he wrote to Newsweek.
“The Big Bend is uniquely susceptible to storm surge, which is always concerning, but it is also pretty sparsely populated, so the overall impact isn’t as high as other locations on the Gulf Coast,” DeHart continued.
“However, due to Florida’s geography, just a slight turn to the east or to the west would have put Idalia into Tallahassee or Tampa Bay. So that’s why I don’t think those kinds of statistics have very much value in terms of threat.”
Heavy rainfall from Idalia left parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast nearly completely engulfed. Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for several counties along Florida’s western bend, but county officials reported making several rescues by boat Wednesday. In St. Petersburg, over 75 people were rescued by the afternoon, and another 60 were saved by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office near the city of Hudson.
“The bottom line is that everyone who lives in a hurricane-prone region needs to be prepared and heed the warnings issued by the National Hurricane Center and local officials,” DeHart told Newsweek. “That is why we do this job, to get the public the best information available to keep them safe.”