Category 3 Hurricane Idalia makes landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Fueled in part by record warm ocean temperatures, Idalia is the strongest storm to hit the Big Bend region in over 125 years
A truck passes through flooded streets caused by Hurricane Idalia passing offshore on August 30, 2023 in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

A truck passes through flooded streets caused by Hurricane Idalia passing offshore on August 30, 2023 in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hurricane Idalia made landfall this morning near Keaton Beach in northern Florida’s Big Bend region. The Category 3 storm hit with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour with the potential for higher gusts. Idalia is the strongest storm to make landfall in Big Bend, the link between the peninsula and panhandle, in more than 125 years.

[Related: What hurricane categories mean, and why we use them.]

Idalia was downgraded to a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of 110 MPH, as of the National Hurricane Centers’ 9 AM update. The storm is moving northeast and the National Hurricane Center is warning of “catastrophic impacts” from storm surge. Parts of the Big Bend region could see up to 16 feet of storm surge. Heavy rainfall is expected, with up to six inches of rain expected in the St. Marks/Apalachee Bay area. Flooding began hours before landfall on Treasure Island, a barrier island on the Gulf Coast, where a high tide at 11:30 AM EDT could create even more storm surge and flooding. 

Hurricane Idalia's peak storm surge forecast, showing 7 to 11 feet in the Big Bend region.
Idalia’s peak storm surge forecast. CREDIT: National Hurricane Center.

Clearwater Beach is seeing a storm surge between five and six feet while nearby Cedar Key is experiencing between eight and nine feet of storm surge. The water is rising rapidly even during a normal low tide period.

A significant surge between four and five feet into Tampa Bay and it set a new record for water levels in the bay before landfall. At 5:30 AM EDT, water levels were at 3.91 feet over and still rising, even as the tide should be lowering. The previous high water mark was 3.79 feet during Tropical Storm Eta in 2020. The I-275 traffic cams showed abandoned streets and water coming up onto the streets

A traffic camera photograph of I-275 in Tampa, showing water coming over a barrier and onto the street.
Flooding on Interstate 275 in Tampa Bay. CREDIT: Florida Department of Transportation.

The hurricane is expected to retain some strength after landfall, as it moves into northern Florida through Wednesday and then into southeastern Georgia by Wednesday afternoon. Damaging winds are also expected beyond the center of the hurricane. 

Overnight, Idalia intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane with winds of 130 mph. Despite the downgrade to a Category 3, Idalia is still very dangerous. “Radar and Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunter aircraft data indicate that an eyewall replacement cycle has begun,” the National Hurricane Center wrote. “Idalia’s maximum sustained winds are now estimated near 125 mph (205 km/h) with higher gusts. This change in wind speed does not diminish the threat of catastrophic storm surge and damaging winds.”

[Related: The future of hurricanes is full of floods—a lot of them.]

These recent storms have fed on the increasingly warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico that fuel more intense hurricanes, and scientists have been sounding the alarm on the repercussions of this for decades. In September 1995, Popular Science magazine featured a warning of a possible wave of killer hurricanes from hurricane forecaster William Gray from Colorado State University. “We’ve gone 25 years with relatively little activity–a long cycle by historical standards. Inevitably, long stretches of destruction will return. Florida and the East Coast will see hurricane devastation such as they’ve never experienced before,” Gray said

As Hurricane Idalia moved over the Gulf of Mexico, the storm was able to feed on the energy from this year’s record warm temperatures, which could only add to its devastation.  “It’s 88, 89 degrees [Fahrenheit] over where the storm’s going to be tracking, so that’s effectively rocket fuel for the storm,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach told the AP. “It’s basically all systems go for the storm to intensify.”

Idalia is the third hurricane to make landfall in Florida in the last 12 months. Hurricane Ian slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2022 as a Category 5 storm, killing at least 161 people and causing roughly $113 billion dollars in damage. Only about two months later Hurricane Nicole hit as a late season Category 1 storm.  Hurricanes that begin with the letter “I” are also the most retired names due to their destructive nature and Idalia could be the next storm added to that list.