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Hurricane Idalia strengthens as it churns towards Florida and Cuba

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Atlanta: Hurricane Idalia strengthened on Tuesday as it lumbered towards Florida’s Gulf Coast, where officials ordered evacuations and urged millions of residents to brace for a possible major Category 3 tempest to make landfall on Wednesday.

Idalia was expected to attain major-hurricane status — with sustained winds topping at least 179 kph — on Wednesday morning before slamming ashore later in the day, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).

The NHC projected Idalia’s centre would likely cross Florida’s coastline somewhere in the Big Bend region, where the state’s northern panhandle curves around into the Gulf side of the Florida Peninsula.

The intensifying storm was on an uncertain path as it spun northward over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It put most of Florida’s 21 million residents, along with those in the southern parts of Georgia and South Carolina, under hurricane, tropical storm and storm surge warnings and advisories. Authorities said Idalia’s chief threat to human life stemmed from surging walls of seawater that would be driven inland by high winds, inundating low-lying coastal areas

Storm surge warnings were posted for hundreds of miles of shoreline, from Sarasota in the north through Tampa and stretching to the sport fishing haven of Indian Pass at the western end of Apalachicola Bay.

In some spots, the surge of water could rise 8 feet (2.44 m) to 12 feet, the National Hurricane Center said.

Storm surge and urban flash flooding made previous hurricanes deadly, FEMA Chief Deanne Criswell said on CNN on Tuesday. “The No. 1 killer in all of these storms is water,” she said.

St. Petersburg residents living in areas prone to flooding were urged to leave by Tuesday afternoon, the city’s police chief Anthony Holloway said on CNN.

“Those surges are going to be what we’re really worried about, about flooding in our city,” he told CNN, adding that the city had opened four shelters for those who needed to leave their homes.

Idalia intensified into a hurricane early on Tuesday. It was expected to reach Category 3 force - classified as a major hurricane - on the five-step Saffir-Simpson wind scale by the time it makes Florida landfall on Wednesday, the NHC said.

It would mark the fourth major hurricane to strike Florida over the past seven years, following Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018 and Ian, which peaked at Category 5, last September.

The NHC said Idalia was churning about 320 miles (515 km) southwest of Tampa as it crept northward, packing maximum sustained winds of 130 kph. 

— Reuters

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