CEDAR KEY, Fla. – While Hurricane Idalia made landfall farther northwest than originally expected in Cedar Key, the town still saw a record 6.9-foot storm surge Wednesday morning.
Residents of this historic, Gulf Coast fishing village renowned for its waterfront seafood restaurants and quaint stores watched live newscasts of water reaching up to the second floor of most Gulf-front businesses and homes Wednesday afternoon.
The storm peaked as a Category 4 hurricane before weakening to make landfall in Keaton Beach, 89 miles north of the island, with predicted storm surges of up to 10 to 15 feet in Cedar Key and surrounding areas in Florida’s Big Bend.
Windows were boarded Tuesday, businesses were empty and cars were missing from driveways in this town on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. A few people on golf carts drove along the island’s roads ahead of the storm – just before an evacuation.
Disaster planners who have studied Cedar Key’s housing and community vulnerabilities have predicted that a Category 3 storm could overwhelm over 80% of homes on the island and cripple nearly all its critical infrastructure.
Brothers Corey Rudd, 26, and Samuel Rudd, 17, were clearing the porch of a home on State Road 24 heading into Cedar Key, and said they had been putting up storm shutters for a few days. Their grandfather owns the business where they work, Taylor Construction and Development Inc. Their grandmother was leaving to shelter in Gainesville, about 60 miles northeast. Their grandfather was staying behind.
Corey, who lives in Gainesville, said Wednesday afternoon they’d been in contact with their grandfather during the storm, and there was flooding up to his front door.
The city’s postmaster of 13 years, Jason Knott, kept busy Tuesday clearing the front of the store to keep debris from turning into a missile. Last year, he said, the town prepared for Hurricane Ian to devastate until that storm turned east. “Really dodged a bullet,” he said. Knott lives in Ocala and was planning to shelter there for the night, but will return Wednesday to check the damage and rebuild, as he always has.
Lydia Hicks, 62, has lived in Cedar Key for two years but has known the city since childhood through her great-grandparents. She works now as a catastrophe insurance adjuster and knows the strength of storms like these. She is not worried so much about the storm surge as she is the strength of the storm winds, which intensified the storm to a Category 4. Hicks said she sheltered at her home in Port Richey, north of Tampa, for the night.
Hicks said she remembered last year’s Hurricane Ian, which shifted suddenly to strike southwest Florida, which was less prepared than areas farther north where the storm had been expected to hit: “People need to take note from what happened with Ian,” she said.
Jim Cantore, The Weather Channel journalist who famously reports from the likely bullseye of the strongest hurricanes, was broadcasting from the town for much of Tuesday and Wednesday morning, posting videos on social media of the third floor of a hotel he was trapped in due to flooding.
Cedar Key only has an area of about two miles. In 2020, it had fewer than 700 residents and 400 total households, according to Census figures.
Forecasters said Hurricane Idalia shifted late Tuesday evening further west from Cedar Key than originally expected. It’s not the first time the town has had a close call with a major storm. Hurricane Ian in 2022, less than a year ago, was just shy of Category 5 status upon landfall and was initially predicted to hit Cedar Key, but instead shifted south of Tampa, relieving residents.
The last major hurricanes to land near Cedar Key in 100 years were Hurricane Easy in 1950 and an unnamed storm in 1935. Hurricane Hermine devastated Cedar Key with the previous record six feet of storm surge in 2016.
In a home on the island, a lone golf cart sat in the driveway Tuesday, morbidly decorated with two skeletons in the back seat facing the road. No one was home.
Tom, who would not give his last name, was walking his dog, Daisy, on Tuesday before leaving town for the night. In his neighborhood on the northwest side of the island, he said, it hasn’t flooded at all in the past two years he has lived there. He’s bringing a box of valuables with him but didn’t expect there to be much damage when he comes back Wednesday.
North of Cedar Key, in the flood-prone Big Bend of Florida and Apalachee Bay, the National Weather Service said a storm surge in this part of Florida would be unprecedented, with unknown consequences.
“Looking back through recorded history, NO major hurricanes have ever moved through the Apalachee Bay,” the weather service said in a bulletin Tuesday. “When you try to compare this storm to others, DON’T. No one has seen this.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com. You can donate to support our students here.