Italia strengthened into a hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph and strong winds before making landfall in Florida on Wednesday.
The storm could deliver a devastating blow with life-threatening storm surge and damaging winds along parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast. It is expected to make landfall north of Tampa in Florida’s Big Bend region, but a slight change in track could put a vulnerable population center at risk.
Before making landfall, Italia could develop a few tornadoes along the west central Florida coast Tuesday and northward along the Florida Big Bend by Tuesday night. Heavy rain could cause flash flooding along Florida’s west coast, the Florida Panhandle, and southern Georgia Tuesday through Wednesday, spreading into the eastern Carolinas Wednesday through Thursday.
The storm was about 370 miles southwest of Tampa early Tuesday morning Hurricane Center said in a 5 a.m. update.
“This is going to be a major hurricane,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Monday.
Florida’s west coast, the Florida panhandle, southeast Georgia and the eastern Carolinas are expected to receive 4 to 8 inches of rain Tuesday through Thursday — and street flooding is possible.
As the storm heads toward Florida, improvements have been seen across the state. Here’s the latest:
- Airports are closed: Tampa International Airport will suspend all commercial operations beginning Tuesday and remain closed until later in the week to assess any damage, airport officials announced. The St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport terminal building will close Tuesday afternoon.
- Evacuation in at least 10 districts: Hillsborough, Franklin, Taylor, Levy, Citrus, Manatee, Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Sarasota counties have all urged residents to evacuate certain areas at risk.
- Schools will be closed: 32 county school districts have issued closures, as have several colleges and universities, including Florida State University, the University of Florida and Florida A&M University.
- An emergency has been declared: DeSantis expanded the emergency declaration to 46 of Florida’s 67 counties Monday morning. Several local jurisdictions have also declared states of emergency.
- The Florida National Guard was activated: More than 5,000 National Guardsmen were activated to help weather the storm.
- US Navy ships begin to departNavy ships have begun departing Florida, ahead of landfall by Tropical Storm Italia, the Navy said Monday.
- Power outages are expected: DeSantis told residents to prepare to be without power. “If you’re in the path of the storm, you should expect power outages, so please prepare for that,” the governor told residents Sunday.
- Services suspended by hospital system: Patients will be transferred from at least three hospitals: HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, HCA Florida Trinity West Hospital and HCA Florida West Tampa Hospital.
“We want everyone to take this storm seriously,” Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Barbara Tripp said during a news conference.
The fire chief asked citizens to clear debris from properties and look out for neighbors who need help ahead of the storm’s arrival.
“Once the wind reaches a certain mile-per-hour speed, Tampa fire rescue will be unable to respond,” Tripp warned.
The storm is forecast to strengthen quickly as it tracks the Gulf of Mexico, tapping into some of the planet’s warmest waters before making landfall in Florida.
If it does, it will join a growing list of devastating storms like Hurricane Ian, which flattened Florida’s coastline and killed more than 100 people.
Italia poses a “significant risk” of the event, the National Hurricane Center warned Monday, as it travels through the Gulf of Mexico.
Water temperatures around South Florida have soared to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas this summer, and overall temperatures in the Gulf have been record-warm, enough to support rapid strengthening.
Florida’s Big Bend has the potential for life-threatening storm surges of up to 12 feet — only made worse by waves driven by hurricane-force winds of 100 mph.
Storm surge, which is when a storm blows out to sea, is one of the most dangerous aspects of a hurricane and the reason behind most storm drains.
Cedar Key could be cut off by heavy storm surge, said Jamie Rome, deputy director of the National Hurricane Center.
“I’m especially concerned for them,” Rome said during a Facebook Live conference call. An entire island can be completely cut off by such conditions.
Rome stressed that evacuation orders issued along the coast due to the storm surge remain in effect.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, storm surge accounts for nearly half of hurricane-related deaths.
Flooding is unlikely to happen only in coastal areas.
Inland areas where people could evacuate could see dangerous flooding and heavy rain from Italy.
Andrew Kruskiewicz, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s School of Climatology, warns that risks related to heavy rainfall could also occur 100 miles from where the storm’s center made track.
“It’s something we’re seeing more and more, and it’s a climate change link because we’re seeing more wet tropical cyclones and wetter cyclones,” he told CNN. “So we need to pay more attention to the risks associated with extreme rainfall, especially in areas far from the coast.”