This story will be updated as the situation warrants.
Tropical Storm Idalia became a hurricane overnight and will likely rapidly intensify before making landfall along Florida’s Gulf Coast as a Category 3 with sustained winds reaching 120 mph.
The National Hurricane Center (NHC) has shifted Idalia’s forecast track west, with Pinellas County likely to avoid the storm’s worst impacts. The latest forecasting models all show the storm making landfall along Florida’s Big Bend region, south of the Panhandle, sometime Wednesday morning.
However, St. Petersburg remains under a hurricane and storm surge warning, and local leaders urge vigilance over complacency. Mayor Ken Welch noted that the NHC’s “cone of uncertainty” is just that – uncertain.
Welch, flanked by administrators and City Councilmembers Copley Gerdes and Ed Montanari, addressed residents at Tuesday morning press conference inside St. Pete’s Emergency Operations Center. He noted that Ft. Myers and Sanibel Island were outside Hurricane Ian’s forecasted cone until the storm shifted to the east as it entered the Gulf last year.
“They thought they were in pretty good shape, and then it took a turn,” Welch warned. “That can happen here. So, folks shouldn’t relax until the storm is well past us.”
Officials are still preparing for a life-threatening storm surge around Tampa Bay. Forecasters expect local waters will rise four to seven feet as Idalia slogs its way up the coast.
The forecasted inundation does not account for Wednesday’s king tide or wave activity. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts Tuesday’s high tide to reach St. Pete around 1 p.m.
The NHC expects Idalia to run nearly parallel with Pinellas County at around 1 a.m. Wednesday. “You may wake up tomorrow and see sunny skies and think the storm is over,” Welch said.
“But it’s important to understand that the highest impact of storm surge is tomorrow afternoon, around 2 p.m.,” he added. “So, we need everyone to be vigilant and listen for updates to keep themselves and others safe through the next several days.”
In addition, there is still time for Idalia to shift back to the west, which would exacerbate local effects. The storm cleared Cuba and entered the Gulf’s warm waters early Tuesday morning.
Warm water fuels hurricanes, and Idalia quickly strengthened to 80 mph once it emerged from the Caribbean. NOAA shows water temperatures reaching 87 to 89 degrees along the Pinellas coast.
St. Petersburg’s coastal and low-lying areas remain under a mandatory evacuation. Emergency Manager Amber Boulding said about 338,000 Pinellas County residents living in Zone A and mobile homes were supposed to evacuate by 7 p.m. Monday.
“Given the powerful force of this hurricane and the potential for tornadoes spawning from it, there is no safe place in a mobile home,” Welch said. “And as we know from Hurricane Ian, the storms can change their projected path.”
St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, in partnership with Pinellas County Schools, started bussing vulnerable residents and those without transportation to shelters at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning. County officials opened 10 facilities, including these four in St. Pete:
- Special needs shelter: John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th S.
- Pet shelter: Gibbs High School, 850 34th Street S.
- Campbell Park Elementary School, 1051 7th S.
- New Heights Elementary School, 3901 37th N.
Emergency Manager Amber Boulding said shelters have plenty of room to continue accepting residents. “We’re not seeing a large evacuation as maybe we had hoped,” she said.
“Whether that’s folks heeding the warning and making the shelter their last resort, an finding other host homes or hotels – that’s great.”
Welch said the city distributed over 69,000 sandbags since Friday and 58,000 Monday. However, those locations closed at 7 p.m. yesterday.
The public works department also lowered ponds and lakes to accommodate significant rainfall.
Welch said sanitation crews “will make their final rounds today” and pick up trash as scheduled. He asked residents to secure their bins once empty.
“Finally, St. Pete, we are all in this together,” Welch said. “And we all have to work together for the best possible outcome. Think of the village, check on your neighbor and assist when you can, safely.”