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Cedar Key recovers slowly from Hurricane Idalia storm surge

A mountain of debris is piled on a street. Trucks have been picking up debris from around Cedar Key. (Kelly Ralph/WUFT News)
A mountain of debris is piled on a street. Trucks have been picking up debris from around Cedar Key. (Kelly Ralph/WUFT News)

Hurricane Idalia flooded Cedar Key and uprooted entire families' homes. Two weeks later, residents are still picking up the pieces.

The Category three storm made landfall in Florida’s Big Bend region Aug. 30, bringing high winds and storm surge to the coastlines and neighboring cities. When the storm cleared, it left debris and water damage in its wake. 

Cedar Key, an island city in Levy County, felt much of the storm’s impact. Flooding has had an effect on residents’ homes and other buildings in the community. The extent of the damage is still being examined, but recovery efforts are going strong. 

“If you were to come to Cedar Key today, you would still see piles of debris on the side of the road waiting to be collected and picked up and cleared out,” said Savanna Barry, an extension agent for the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key.

She said Hurricane Idalia was a historic storm surge event. 

“We had a lot of water in places that it wouldn’t normally be,” she said. “The entire city was impacted.”

She said all of Cedar Key’s low-lying elevation areas were impacted by the storm surge. Many people who had more recently built elevated houses were left with only debris to clean up. Whereas people in historic homes built at lower elevations lost almost everything to flooding, she said.

“A lot of it depends on when it was built, how high it was built and what elevation the structure was on,” Barry said.

Residents were also affected by water damage, she said.

Now, she said, people are choosing to focus on immediate cleanup. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. Debris takes time to be removed, she said, and many residents have to remediate for mold and document insurance claims. 

“We’re still pretty far down the road on cleanup,” she said. “This is the many-month process to get people back on their feet and operational.”

Nina Stark, associate professor of civil and coastal engineering at the University of Florida, said she and a team of researchers went to Cedar Key shortly after the hurricane. She said she saw damage to buildings and piers from the storm surge. 

“If the storm surge is that high, you have overflow,” she said. “Suddenly, you have water flowing around structural elements and get practically undermined, taking away their support. That has an effect on these infrastructures and these buildings.” 

Stark, who has done prior research on hurricanes, said she and a team conduct a series of research expeditions to collect data on infrastructures. She said they also work with locals to focus on what is needed first.

“In these types of projects and work, we have a lot of interaction with local communities,” she said. “We try to work very closely with communities to hear about their concerns.”

Sue Colson, Cedar Key city commissioner, said recovery efforts in the city have been very organized so far. Mountains of debris have piled up after being removed from the roads and people’s yards, she said. Trucks are then being used to pick up the debris.

“It’s very simple,” she said. “We’re doing multiple tasks at a time, but everyone knows their role. And now we’re down to seeing what’s there and what’s not done. We’re assessing, and at the same time producing.”

Colson said the city has become much more organized since past storms. She said the residents just have to be in a certain “mode” to prepare for storms.

“If you live on an island, you don't have a lot of choice except to learn to live with it and get better and better at handling it,” she said. 

She said the worst blow was the loss of well-loved buildings and businesses. It was difficult to see these places damaged or destroyed, she said.

After Cedar Key’s City Hall was hit hard for a second time, she said plans were being made to change its location. 

“Hurricanes change the face of the town,” Colson said. “But it got back together, and hopefully was improved.”

She said the people of Cedar Key know what needs to be done.

“Whatever we do, we don’t add to the burden each year,” she said. “We make it better.”


Kelly is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.