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Idalia strengthens as it closes in on Florida

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Evacuations have been ordered and schools were closed today along much of Florida's Gulf Coast. Hurricane Idalia is expected to hit the state tomorrow with winds of 125 miles an hour and a storm surge as high as 15 feet in some areas. The National Hurricane Center says the storm is likely to make landfall in Florida's Big Bend region. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis says people who live along the Gulf Coast from Tampa Bay to Panama City need to prepare.

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RON DESANTIS: You got to watch how this thing goes and where it can impact. It could veer west and hit places like Tallahassee. It could veer further east and end up impacting more directly other parts of the Florida peninsula.

SHAPIRO: Well, NPR's Greg Allen is covering all this from Saint Petersburg on Tampa Bay. And, Greg, tell us what you're seeing around town.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Well, we see a lot of people getting ready for this hurricane. Tampa Bay appears to be likely to avoid a direct hit from the storm. But the big concern here is the storm surge, which is estimated to be as much as four to seven feet. And this is an area that's very low and susceptible to flooding. I was on Saint Petersburg Beach today, where we ran into Steve Sewell. He was filling as many sandbags as he could to protect his house from storm surge.

STEVE SEWELL: I'll tell you what. It's been hard trying to get enough sand for your home. I mean, just one little layer of sandbags just doesn't seem to do it. I mean, they're calling for that four-foot surge. So I'm at sea level, so I'm trying to get up three or four feet. But, you know, finding bags - there are no bags.

SHAPIRO: And that's near the southern end of the potential landfall range. More than 20 Florida counties have called for evacuations. Does it seem like people are following those orders?

ALLEN: Well, officials say they're not seeing the number of cars on the road that they've seen in some earlier evacuations in previous years, including last year in Hurricane Ian. They say that might be because people have learned you don't need to go far. You're always told to just go out of the evacuation zone a mile or two. People are being encouraged to stay with friends and family or book a hotel room for a night or two. And that's what Marisa Kaniuk is doing. I talked to her today at Saint Petersburg Beach. She was doing what she could to safeguard her home but was planning to spend the night in a short-term rental just a few miles inland.

MARISA KANIUK: Well, I came from New Jersey. I moved down here about four years ago. And I lived through Superstorm Sandy, so I've seen what water can do. And I'm not taking any chances.

ALLEN: You know, Saint Petersburg Beach and, in fact, this whole area, Tampa Bay, was very quiet today. Many people do seem to have evacuated, but some say they're staying.

SHAPIRO: Why would they stay despite warnings that the storm surge could be seven feet or more?

ALLEN: Well, some people feel that they are ready and can safely ride out a storm. I visited a restaurant in Saint Pete Beach today that's planning to remain open, even tomorrow, the owner said. Steve Sewell, the guy who was doing sandbags earlier, said he's not planning to leave.

SEWELL: I'm going to stay. I'll stay. I've done the run to Alabama, you know? And you come back, and your neighborhood's bone dry. And you're like, whew. So I don't know. I think this time I'm going to hang. I hope it's the right call (laughter).

ALLEN: Idalia is expected to make landfall tomorrow well north of Tampa Bay. But the storm surge here could begin arriving well before that.

SHAPIRO: Well, talk about the situation where it is likely to make landfall. What impacts are people likely to see there?

ALLEN: Well, that's up in the Big Bend area. That's where Florida's Gulf Coast meets the panhandle. It's a relatively undeveloped area with just mostly small towns. At the same time, it's especially susceptible to storm surge. And many homes there are older homes not built to withstand hurricanes. With 125 mile per hour winds and a storm surge as high as 15 feet, Idalia is going to do a lot of damage. Search and rescue crews are standing by, officials say. And they may begin rescues tomorrow evening if rescues are necessary just as soon as the storm passes. Governor DeSantis says because that's a rural area with a lot of trees, there's likely to be widespread power outages and downed trees and lines. There are tens of thousands of linemen prepositioned, ready to go to work to restore power.

But all that's likely to take time, especially if we see major damage to the infrastructure. Idalia is a fast-moving storm, and it's going to be bringing tropical storm force winds, heavy rain and storm surge beyond Florida up into coastal Georgia by tomorrow afternoon. And officials are warning about the possibility of flooding and tornadoes as the storm moves inland through Florida and up to the Carolinas.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Greg Allen. Thank you.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.