As Hurricane Idalia approached Florida’s west coast in the early hours of Wednesday morning, forecasters warned that gusts of up to 130 miles per hour would tear Tallahassee apart and wreak havoc in surrounding areas.
But as Florida residents braced for impact, the hurricane reversed and slowed, a result of a natural phenomenon in which the wall around the hurricane’s eye is “replaced” as the system restructures.
Although the hurricane caused significant damage and claimed at least two lives, experts warned the damage could have been far worse.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Idalia was reclassified as a Category 4 hurricane as of 6 a.m. Wednesday before wind speeds dropped to 120 miles per hour and the hurricane was downgraded to a Category 3.
Airborne storm monitors also showed the hurricane made a last-minute turn before reaching Tallahassee, sparing the more populated area from the eye of the storm when it made land just before 8 a.m. just north of town at Keaton Beach .
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the eye of Hurricane Idalia went through an “eyewall replacement cycle,” a natural phenomenon that could have prevented further destruction
The twister caused widespread destruction along Florida’s west coast, and at least two people died in various weather-related accidents hours before Idalia made landfall
The natural process that could potentially save lives is known among meteorologists as the “eyewall replacement cycle,” and is a common part of a hurricane’s buildup before it makes landfall.
As storms intensify, the storm’s eye narrows, narrowing as it speeds up. When it reaches its top speed, a new eyewall can form around the epicenter.
“Like a figure skater drawing her arms up instead of stretching them out, the hurricane spins with much more energy, power and ferocity when you look closely,” said Ryan Maue, meteorologist and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When that happens, the eye of the storm will lose momentum, which happened Wednesday morning when Idalia was downgraded to a Category 3 hurricane.
While an “eyewall replacement cycle” reduces a storm’s strength, it also increases its magnitude as the epicenter expands and gusts subside. Given enough time for this process, the storm can become far more powerful than before as wind speeds can pick up again.
After the storm’s strength subsided, forecasters were relieved to find that it was turning north from the state capital, Tallahassee, toward less-populated Keaton Beach
According to NOAA, the exchange can take anywhere from 12 to 18 hours and up to 2 to 3 days. These cycles can happen multiple times in a twister’s journey.
But in the case of Idalia, the replacement occurred close enough to Florida that friction from the landing reduced wind speed.
Donald Jones, a forecaster for the National Weather Service in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said forecasters believe the cycle was “beneficial from a time perspective” given the significant damage still being seen in affected areas under the weakened storm.
In Tallahassee, home to about 200,000 people, Florida State University and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mansion, which was hit by a falling tree during the storm, residents suffered significant damage but were spared the eye of the storm.
Rather than hit the state capital, Idalia turned north-northeast and landed near Keaton Beach, the Hurricane Center said at 7:45 a.m. Wednesday.
“Had that reversal not happened, there would have been far more devastating effects here in Tallahassee,” Kelly Godsey, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, told the newspaper New York Post that he and his colleagues slept in the weather office the night of the storm to monitor the situation.
“Eyewall replacement cycles are common in large hurricanes, and seeing that actually leads to temporary weakening,” he added.
Businesses across the state have been hit hard, with several people saying they may have to leave their homes permanently
Whole houses were razed to the ground by the storm down to the ground
While some might have been relieved when Idalia touched down with less force than initially feared, for thousands the impact was severe as damage spread across much of the state’s west coast and as far north as Georgia and South Carolina.
After slowing before reaching shore, the National Weather Service monitored the storm moving forward at 18 mph, a surprisingly above-average speed that meteorologists say could have been both a good and a bad side effect.
Due to the speed, the storm moved quite quickly through certain areas, which, while partially limiting the damage, also allowed it to maintain its momentum and continue its path.
Due to Idalia’s strength and large radius, the storm reached much of Florida before touching Georgia and the Carolinas, with the cyclone still causing damage Thursday as storm surges were observed in North Carolina.
The hurricane that hit the country on Wednesday morning is said to have caused billions of dollars in damage
Due to the strength of the storm, damage extended from the west coast of Florida (pictured in Horseshoe Beach, Florida) to North Carolina
Entire cities have been leveled by the hurricane as residents of Cedar Key, Florida (pictured) are tasked with clearing debris from the cyclone
The full extent of the damage has yet to be determined as authorities fear the cleanup could cost billions.
Entire homes were leveled by the violent storm, with between 4,000 and 6,000 homes destroyed in Florida’s Pasco County alone, County Administrator Mike Carballa said
Much of Cedar Key, an island of 700 people at the center of the storm, was believed to be submerged Thursday as officials warned the death toll could rise as all small towns along the coast are searched.
“We’ve downed several trees, debris in the streets – don’t come,” the Cedar Key Fire and Rescue Department said in a social media post.
The destruction also prompted President Joe Biden to officially declare a major disaster, allowing the White House to channel federal funds to affected areas.
. “The President’s action will make federal funds available to affected individuals in Citrus, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Suwannee and Taylor counties,” the White House said in a statement Thursday. Biden said he will visit Florida on Saturday.
Florida Highway Patrol officials reported that hours before Idalia made landfall, two people died in separate weather-related accidents, although no direct hurricane-related fatalities have been confirmed after Idalia reached shore.
In one case, a 59-year-old man died in Gainesville after losing control of his truck on the road and crashing into a ditch in heavy rain.
Another motorist, a 40-year-old man in Pasco County, was driving “too fast for the conditions” and fatally crashed into a tree, highway patrol said. None of the victims have been identified.
The storm brought strong winds to Savannah, Georgia on its way towards the Carolinas and was predicted to move along the coast before entering the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Weather Service said Idalia triggered a tornado that made brief landfall in Charleston, South Carolina, where two people suffered minor injuries when the wind blew a car into the air.