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Florida’s Big Bend Region Hadn’t Had a Hurricane in a Century Until Idalia Hit

Some residents of the vulnerable coast have already experienced prolonged displacement from even minor rainfall events.

An tree is seen fallen on the ground in Steinhatchee, Florida, on August 30, 2023, after Hurricane Idalia made landfall.

This year’s first major hurricane made landfall early Wednesday morning, bringing 125-mile-per-hour winds to Florida’s Big Bend region. Officials and residents told Grist that the sparsely populated coastal area, which stretches from near Gainesville to just south of Tallahassee, was wholly unprepared for Hurricane Idalia, a category 3 storm fueled by exceptionally hot waters in the Gulf of Mexico. The area hasn’t been struck directly by a hurricane in more than a century.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mandy Lemmermen, the battalion chief for the Dixie County fire department, who was hunkered down in an operations center in the county seat of Cross City when she spoke to Grist on Tuesday evening. “You can’t survive this.”

After taking shape in the Gulf of Mexico, Idalia underwent a process known as “rapid intensification,” swiftly strengthening from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane as it passed over the hot waters of the Gulf of Mexico, then weakening just before it made landfall. The most devastating Atlantic hurricanes of the past few years, including 2022’s Ian and 2021’s Ida, have all undergone this process. Scientists believe that climate change is making it more common.

By early morning Wednesday, just minutes after landfall, the storm had already pushed more than six feet of storm surge over the island town of Cedar Key, submerging many buildings in the beachfront area. A similar tide was flowing up the Steinhatchee River, where it was poised to cause similar flooding. More than 160,000 customers in the state had lost power, and more than 20 counties across the state had issued some form of mandatory evacuation order. Areas as far north as Georgia and South Carolina were expected to see rain damage, and areas as far south as Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg had already experienced flooding as winds pushed storm surge into city streets.

But the longest-lasting effects are likely to be in the rural communities along the remote Big Bend coast.

“It’s Waterworld there,” said Kathryn Frank, a professor of urban planning at the University of Florida who has worked with Big Bend communities on climate adaptation. “You have water coming from every direction, and that’s why it hasn’t developed much.”

Because the area is so flat, storm surge reaches farther inland than it does even in other parts of Florida. In Levy County, for instance, Frank’s team found that a Category 3 storm could inundate terrain as far as 20 miles away from the water’s edge.

The coastal shelf along the Big Bend is shallow and flat as well, which leads to much higher waves, increasing the depth of hurricane flooding. The National Hurricane Center estimated yesterday that Idalia would produce 12-foot surges along the coast, but Dixie County’s own hazard mitigation plan estimates that surges could reach as high as 24 feet, large enough to inundate almost every structure in coastal towns like Horseshoe Beach. The fact that the storm is arriving during a full moon, which produces higher tides, will make the surge even worse.

The region also floods from the inland side, because it sits atop the Floridan Aquifer, an underground water layer that discharges up to the surface when it rains. Rivers like the Suwanee and the Steinhatchee often flood for weeks at a time. The vast majority of land area in areas like Taylor County sits inside the hundred-year floodplain, indicating a level of risk that many cities like Houston, Texas, have deemed unsustainable for development.

To make matters worse, residents often have limited resources to deal with flooding. The median household income in Dixie County is around $44,000, far below the national average. A recent report from United Way of the Big Bend found that far more families in the region are struggling to meet basic needsthan in the rest of the state.

Some residents in Dixie County have already experienced prolonged displacement from even minor rainfall events. A series of floods back in the spring and summer of 2021 brought five feet of water to many houses in the county’s Old Town neighborhood, which sits on the Suwannee River, and locals were still waiting to get back into their homes in January of the following year.

“It feels like living in a swamp,” said Deena Long, who moved to a manufactured home in the area from Georgia back in 2018. “The first two years, everything was underwater. It came right up to our trailer and our well house, and everything else was totally underwater, and it was the same for our neighbors on both sides.”

Long said she and her husband have to wear galoshes to walk through her yard, and they often see snakes floating around in the water. Nevertheless, she planned to stick it out at home during Hurricane Idalia. Long and other residents have blamed the county for not maintaining the area’s drainage infrastructure.

“There’s not enough culverts, there’s not enough drainage. It’s poor planning on the government’s part,” she told Grist. “It’s been a strong conversation, but nothing ever happens. It gets pushed back under the rug.”

Even several miles inland, in areas that sit higher off the ground, the winds were substantial on Wednesday.

“There are trees down in all directions,” said Rebecca Greenberg, a criminology graduate student who stayed behind in Dixie County to keep track of her dogs and horse. “I can hear loud booms. I think it’s trees or trailers or propane tanks getting blown down.”

Having struggled with even minor flood events, the Big Bend’s infrastructure is nowhere near prepared for a storm of Idalia’s magnitude. As of 2015, more than 30 percent of residents in Taylor and Dixie counties lived in mobile or manufactured homes, which can sustain huge damage or collapse altogether during big wind storms. A large portion also use residential septic systems, which can fail and backflow into homes. When Frank conducted a study of sea-level rise in Levy County, her team found that many coastal roads and wastewater plants would sink several feet underwater during even a mild storm.

“Even during dry seasons, it’s wet, so when you get a storm like this one, with a big storm surge, it can travel really far inland,” said Frank. “That’s very bad for environmental health.” It’s possible that septic and drinking water systems could be inoperable for weeks or months, she added.

Unlike in rural parts of the Louisiana coast, there are no levees or shoreline protection projects that can control flooding. In the three coastal counties in Idalia’s path, which have a combined population of around 80,000, just 2,000 households buy flood insurance from the federal government, according to FEMA data. The state’s Resilient Florida grant program, which has spent millions on climate adaptation projects, has only funded a few planning initiatives in the Big Bend.

The roads in Long’s area are made out of dirt, so they become muddy and impassable even during mild rain. During the worst flood events over the past few years, she has relied on her neighbor to drive her out of the area on a tractor.

Idalia’s track over the rural Big Bend will likely ensure that overall monetary damages from the storm are far lower than for storms like Hurricane Ian, which hit a densely populated area. But for the people who do live in the Big Bend, the devastation could be total, according to Frank.

“The eye is going straight at these little towns, like Steinhatchee, that are just trying to make the best of it,” she said. “My heart goes out to that little little small town.”

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