1 of 4 | Residents lean out of their houses next to a flooded street in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday, after Tropical Storm Idalia's heavy winds and rain caused widespread flooding and power outages in western Cuba. Idalia has strengthened to a hurricane and is expected to make landfall in Florida on Wednesday. Photo by Ernesto Mastracusa/EPA-EFE
Aug. 29 (UPI) -- Hurricane Idalia, which struck western Cuba as a tropical storm, strengthened to a Category 2 on Tuesday and barreled toward Florida's west coast where it is forecast to make landfall as an "extremely dangerous" hurricane on Wednesday.
Scores of businesses shut down Tuesday and thousands evacuated.
Idalia is expected to make landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with "life-threatening storm surge" on Wednesday, as its path shifted west to Taylor County.
"If you are under an evacuation order, now is the time to leave," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters in his latest update Tuesday.
"You still have a couple of hours to pack up and get on the road before conditions deteriorate, but by late tonight you will need to hunker down and stay in place," DeSantis warned. "If you choose to stay, first responders will not be able to get to you until after the storm has passed."
"This storm is going to hit tomorrow morning, you will start seeing effects in parts of the state later today," DeSantis said.
Mandatory evacuation orders are in effect for parts of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Hernando counties, in addition to Pasco County where storm surge is the biggest concern with water from the Gulf of Mexico and heavy rainfall.
Hernando County, the St. Petersburg-Clearwater-Tampa metropolitan area, was also given a mandatory evacuation order Tuesday morning.
"If you have to evacuate, please do so," Hernando County emergency management director David DeCarlo urged. "If you choose to stay on Hernando Beach, Pine Island, Aripeka -- there's going to be a chance we're not going to be able to get you at a certain point for rescue."
DeSantis has suspended all tolls in the evacuation zones, as Uber announced it would provide free trips to state-approved evacuation centers. Those counties eligible for the free rides are Alachua, Citrus, Collier, Dixie, Lake, Marion, Nassau, Orange, Pasco, Polk, Sarasota, Sumter, Union and Volusia.
As the Tampa Bay area faces dangerous storm surge, high winds and heavy rain, Tampa International Airport announced it suspended all commercial operations Tuesday morning, adding that the airport hopes to reopen Thursday.
"The closure will allow the airport and its partners to prepare the airfield and terminals, including the security of jet bridges, ground equipment and any remaining aircraft before Idalia's expected landfall early Wednesday as a potential major hurricane," the airport said as it warned travelers the terminals are closed and are "not equipped to function as a shelter."
According to the airline tracking website Flight Aware, 83% of the flights leaving Tampa International Airport were canceled on Tuesday, as were 87% of flights that were scheduled to fly into the airport. Any flights allowed into or out of the airport are strictly cargo.
Amtrak canceled twelve East Coast routes to and from the Orlando and Miami areas on Tuesday and Wednesday, in advance of Hurricane Idalia.
While Hurricane Idalia is impacting cargo operations at Port Canaveral, it is not affecting the cruise ship schedule. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, two cargo ships carrying lumber will remain offshore until after the storm passes. One cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas was in port Tuesday and scheduled to leave Tuesday evening. No cruise ships are scheduled to dock Wednesday.
DeSantis said the state is coordinating with electrical companies to build an army of 25,000 linemen who will respond to power outages once the storm has passed.
Florida also dispatched its Urban Search and Rescue teams to the Gulf Coast and the central part of the state in anticipation of rescue efforts. Along with the equipment, the crews are bringing K-9 units to help search for victims in fallen structures.
"You have to rely on the equipment you brought in so resources can be brought in after things have been made safe," said Miami Fire Rescue Capt. Ignatius Carroll, who is going into the area. "We're prepared for that, but we're also hoping that a lot of people heed the warnings to evacuate the areas that are going to be affected by the storm.
"We have high-water vehicles that allow us to traverse through any kind of terrain-flooded areas. The boats will allow us to get to areas that are completely flooded or washed away, where the only way you can access it is by boat."
AdventHealth said it would evacuate its hospital in Tarpon Springs, less than two miles from the Gulf of Mexico, on Tuesday, moving patients, and relocating more than 60 patients to other hospitals by noon.
"Given our location and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, along with the projected storm surge of 5 to 7 feet and mandatory evacuation orders, we are evacuating our AdventHealth North Pinellas hospital in Tarpon Springs out of an abundance of caution for the safety of our patients, visitors and team members," AdventHealth officials said.
Lake County, part of the Kissimmee-Orlando metropolitan area, said it will continue bus service until 8 p.m.
Florida State University, New College of Florida, the University of North Florida and the University of South Florida all announced their closures.
Late Monday, United Launch Alliance announced it had delayed the planned launch of its Atlas V rocket, which has a payload from the National Reconnaissance Office, from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
"Out of an abundance of caution for personnel safety, a critical national security payload and the approaching [Hurricane] Idalia, the team made the decision to return the rocket and payload to the vertical integration facility," ULA said.
Georgia is also preparing for Hurricane Idalia as Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency Tuesday in anticipation of heavy winds, rain, flash flooding and power outages in the south and coastal regions of the state. The National Weather Service warns tornadoes are also possible.
"We are taking every precaution ahead of Hurricane Idalia's landfall and I am taking this additional executive action to ensure state assets are ready to respond," Kemp said Tuesday.
Savannah Mayor Van Johnson announced a curfew from 6 p.m. Wednesday until 6 a.m. Thursday, as Brunswick Mayor Cosby Johnson issued a shelter in place order beginning at 6 a.m. Wednesday.
As evacuations and preparations continue with Hurricane Idalia closing in on Florida, surfers up and down the East Coast flocked to the beach Tuesday to take advantage of the growing waves, according to Surfline which posted live views of the waves and called it a "swell event."