As Hurricane Idalia approaches the Big Bend region of Florida – between the state’s Panhandle and peninsula and centered on the capital of Tallahassee – it has already brought a storm surge and high winds to Tampa Bay on the Gulf coast, prompting the closure of Tampa airport on Tuesday and mandatory evacuation orders for residents in mobile and manufactured homes and high-risk areas in several counties.
The storm is strengthening “rapidly” as it prepares to make landfall in the Big Bend area on Wednesday morning, where it is expected to be a “dangerous” category 4 hurricane. Idalia is due to travel north-east across parts of Georgia and the Carolinas towards the Atlantic.
According to the US National Hurricane Center, the storm had sustained maximum winds of 130 miles per hour at 5am EDT on Wednesday morning. It is also warning of “catastrophic storm surge and destructive winds… nearing the Florida Big Bend region”.
Hurricane season and high-risk areas
The six-month long Atlantic hurricane season runs from 1 June until 30 November, peaking between mid-August and late October, “when the waters in the equatorial Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico have warmed enough to help support the development of tropical waves”, according to the Florida Climate Center.
The UK Met Office adds that hurricanes can still form later into December, when the risk diminishes due to the general cooling of the northern hemisphere and sea surface temperatures in the region falling below 27°C which is the temperature required for tropical cyclones to develop .
The Florida Climate Center notes that “since 1850, all of Florida’s coastline has been impacted by at least one hurricane” – no part of the state, one of the most popular holiday destinations among British visitors, is immune to tropical storms during the season.
Of climate change, it adds that “while the mean intensity of hurricanes has not changed significantly in the past, warmer oceans raise the ceiling for intensity. A larger proportion of storms have reached major hurricane (category 3-5) strength in recent years, along with an increase in rapid intensification events.”
The areas most susceptible to land-falling hurricanes are the south-east coastline of Florida, followed by the Panhandle. According to the Florida Climate Center, “areas around Tampa, Jacksonville and the Big Bend do not have as high of a risk of a direct strike from a hurricane but are still susceptible to a landfall each year. Even if the hurricane makes landfall elsewhere in the state, the impacts can be felt hundreds of miles away.”
The Met Office issues tropical storm seasonal forecasts, predicting that this season there will be 19 named tropical storms in the North Atlantic and noting that the long-term average is 14.
The most recent category 4 hurricane in Florida was Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in Cayo Costa off the Gulf Coast on 28 September 2022 and caused 149 deaths in the state.
In October 2018, Hurricane Michael was the first category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous US in 26 years and the first category 5 storm to affect the Florida Panhandle, where it made landfall near Mexico Beach on 10 October, 2018. The previous year, Hurricane Irma – a category 4 storm – hit the Florida Keys on 10 September.
Hurricane Idalia is expected to cause storm surges of 12-16ft above ground level between the Wakulla/Jefferson County line and Yankeetown, with “life threatening storm surge inundations” elsewhere along the Gulf Coast.
Met Office expert operational meteorologist, Jason Kelly, said: “Hurricane Idalia is now a powerful category 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale which will bring sustained peak wind speeds of around 130mph along with a dangerous 10-15ft sea surge and heavy rain.
“The region where Idalia will make landfall has never seen a category 3 or above hurricane, so this is an unprecedented event which will have significant impacts on the local population. Idalia is expected to move offshore into the Atlantic later on Thursday or into Friday when its track then becomes more uncertain”.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Franklin is producing “significant surf and rip currents along the eastern seaboard” of the US, with tropical storm conditions expected in Bermuda.
Advice for travellers
The Foreign Office advises travellers to the US to monitor progress of approaching storms on the US National Hurricane Center website, and to follow instructions from local authorities, including evacuation orders. It also has a tropical cyclones page for advice about how to prepare effectively and what to do if you’re likely to be affected by a hurricane or tropical cyclone.
Travellers due to visit Florida in the coming days should check with their travel provider in the first instance, since flights may be cancelled. Refunds for cancellations directly resulting from hurricanes or tropical storms should be sought from the airline, accommodation provider or tour operator in the first instance. Bookings paid for by credit card may also have recoverable costs.
Not all travel insurance policies cover disruption from extraordinary events such as hurricanes, but some will offer protection as a supplement. If travelling to Florida, particularly during hurricane season, it is advisable to check whether your policy covers delayed departure, cancellation, curtailed trips and natural catastrophes.
Once a hurricane or storm is named, it becomes a known event, so if you purchase an insurance policy after this point you’re unlikely to be covered for resulting disruption. This underlines the importance of taking out travel insurance as soon as travel has been booked.
A spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers said: “Anyone due to travel to Florida should keep an eye on FCDO advice and follow their latest guidance, especially as travelling against it is likely to invalidate your travel insurance. Some travel insurance policies will cover disruption from natural disasters but it’s important to know the scope of your individual policy. If unsure, contact your insurer to check.”