By Maria Alejandra Cardona and Marco Bello
STEINHATCHEE, Florida (Reuters) -Millions of Florida residents secured boats and properties and fled to higher ground on Wednesday as Idalia intensified to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane and threatened a direct hit on the state’s Big Bend region.
As Idalia drew strength from the Gulf of Mexico’s warm, open waters, at least 28 of Florida’s 67 counties were under mandatory evacuation orders, and residents on the Gulf Coast prepared to face fierce winds, torrential rain and surging seawater from the storm.
“If you have not evacuated, you need to do that right now,” Florida emergency management chief Kevin Guthrie said during a news briefing late on Tuesday. “You need to drop what you’re doing .. pack up, pack your things and get to safety.”
Idalia attained “an extremely dangerous Category 4 intensity” on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale on its way to landfall in Florida Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) in Miami said.
As of 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), Idalia was packing maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour (215 kph) as it churned toward shore 60 miles (95 km) west of Cedar Key, Florida. Any storm reaching Category 3 or higher is considered a major hurricane.
Most of Florida’s 21 million residents, and many in the adjacent states of Georgia and South Carolina, were under hurricane warnings and other storm-related advisories. State emergency declarations were issued in all three.
“They’re expecting some fatalities, so I don’t want to be one of them,” Rene Hoffman, 62, said as she prepared to leave her home in Steinhatchee, Florida, which is in the projected landfall zone. She owns a food stand that she secured to her husband’s pickup truck to keep it from washing or blowing away.
Florida’s Gulf Coast, southeastern Georgia and eastern parts of North and South Carolina could face 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) of rain through Thursday, with isolated areas seeing as much as a foot of rain (30 cm), the hurricane center warned.
Officials said the storm’s most dangerous feature would be a powerful surge of wind-driven surf that is expected to flood barrier islands and other low-lying areas along the coast.
Surge warnings were posted for hundreds of miles of shoreline, from Sarasota to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay. In some areas, the surge of water could rise 12 to 16 feet (3.7 to 4.9 m), the NHC said.
“The No. 1 killer in all of these storms is water,” Deanne Criswell, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s administrator, said on CNN.
The NHC said Idalia’s center would most likely cross Florida’s shoreline somewhere in the Big Bend region, where the state’s northern Gulf Coast panhandle curves into the western side of the Florida Peninsula, roughly bounded by the inland cities of Gainesville and Tallahassee, the state capital.
Sparsely populated compared with the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to the south, the Big Bend features a marshy coast, threaded with freshwater springs and rivers, and a cluster of small offshore islands forming Cedar Key, a historic fishing village demolished in 1896 by a hurricane’s storm surge.
At the White House on Tuesday, U.S. President Biden said he and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election, were “in constant contact” about storm preparations.
Biden was set to speak about the government’s hurricane response efforts later on Wednesday.
Idalia-related disruptions extended to Florida’s Atlantic coast at Cape Canaveral, where the Tuesday launch of a rocket carrying a U.S. Space Force intelligence satellite was delayed indefinitely.
Idalia grew from a tropical storm into a hurricane early on Tuesday, a day after passing west of Cuba, where it damaged homes, knocked out power, flooded villages and prompted mass evacuations.
It was fourth major hurricane to strike Florida in the past seven years, following Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018 and Ian, which peaked at Category 5, last September.
More than 40 school districts in Florida canceled classes, DeSantis said, and Tampa International Airport suspended commercial operations on Tuesday.
About 5,500 National Guard members were mobilized, while 30,000 to 40,000 electricity workers were on standby. The state has set aside 1.1 million gallons of gasoline to address interruptions to fuel supplies, the governor said.
In Sarasota – a city hard-hit by Ian last year – Milton Bontrager, 40, who runs a charter fishing service near Tampa, said his home was boarded up and stocked with food, water and a generator, and his boats were secure.
“I don’t panic, I prepare,” he said on Tuesday.