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Idalia is a hurricane ahead of hitting Florida's Gulf Coast

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Florida is bracing for a major hurricane by Wednesday. Tropical Storm Idalia is expected to strengthen significantly after it passes over western Cuba tonight and moves over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been monitoring Florida's preparations and joins us now. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So what is the precise threat from Idalia at this point?

ELLIOTT: You know, dangerous winds and certainly life-threatening storm surge. The thing here is that Idalia will be gaining so much strength over the supercharged Gulf of Mexico. You know, temperatures off of Florida's west coast are as hot as 90 degrees in some places, and that's just pure fuel for rapid intensification of a hurricane.

CHANG: Right.

ELLIOTT: The forecast says there could be as much as a 12-foot storm surge. That's a huge wall of water pushing ashore with the storm. And then the storm is going to affect a large area, you know, stretching from the Florida panhandle all the way south of Tampa Bay.

CHANG: Wow. Well, what are Floridians doing now to prepare in advance of this storm?

ELLIOTT: Well, tens of thousands of utility workers are staged and in place, ready to start repairs because there is significant wind damage expected. There are Search and rescue teams getting ready, high-water vehicles and food and water supplies being put into place. Some 5,500 National Guard troops are mobilized to help with the recovery. And locally, emergency officials are opening shelters and evacuating people from vulnerable coastal areas. Just in the Tampa Bay area alone, about 330,000 people are under mandatory evacuation orders, including mobile homes. Here's Pinellas County Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins urging residents to take this threat seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHIE PERKINS: If you live in those barrier islands and those low-lying areas, we want you to move out of harm's way. This is going to be a Category 3, a major storm right off the coast of Pinellas County.

CHANG: Well, Debbie, this is the first hurricane to take aim at Florida this season, right? And I know that it's coming as southwest Florida is still recovering from Hurricane Ian, which was last year's. So what kind of fears are you hearing from people right now?

ELLIOTT: Right. It's already difficult to find companies willing to insure property given the state's high insurance losses. But with climate change and the warmer ocean temperatures, you're going to get more rapidly intensifying storms. Late last week, forecasters thought this might just be a tropical storm. And then this morning, the picture changed and got much more serious. At one of his briefings today, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis acknowledged the uncertainty of what the state is facing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: So we are bracing for a major hurricane impact, Category 3-plus. Hopefully it doesn't get much worse than a Category 3. But the reality is you got basically clear sailing for this thing. You've got waters that are warm. And there's not really going to be much to slow it down.

ELLIOTT: Now, just the slightest wobble of the hurricane's track at the last minute could put even more people at risk, so DeSantis is urging everyone on the Gulf Coast to be prepared and to stay vigilant.

CHANG: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you so much, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: 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.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.