Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s west coast as a dangerous category 3 storm on Wednesday, and has now been upgraded to category 4.
Idalia came ashore in the lightly populated Big Bend region, where the Florida Panhandle curves into the peninsula. It made landfall near Keaton Beach at 7.45am local time (12.45pm BST) with maximum sustained winds near 125mph.
Forecasters said it would remain a hurricane while crossing Florida and Georgia before punishing the Carolinas as a tropical storm.
More than 200,000 people have already been left without electricity as trees snapped by strong winds brought down power lines and water submerged streets. Along the coast, some homes were submerged to near their rooftops, and structures along the ocean crumpled in the surge. As the eye moved inland, destructive winds shredded signs and rooftops.
Is it safe to travel to Florida?
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is not advising people against travelling to Florida. However, it has issued a warning that the hurricane will bring dangerous conditions including heavy rain, high winds, and damaging storm surges.
Tourists are advised to follow the guidance of the local authorities by checking for updates on the Florida Disaster website and the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s Twitter page.
Hurricanes are measured on a five category scale, with a category 5 being the strongest. A category 3 storm is the first on the scale considered a major hurricane and the National Hurricane Centre says a category 4 storm brings “catastrophic damage”.
The Florida Disaster website has warned of “life-threatening conditions”, and the National Hurricane Center has cautioned of “catastrophic storm surge and destructive winds”. People in the areas affected by the storm have been advised to shelter and avoid going outdoors.
“Don’t put your life at risk by doing anything dumb at this point,” Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, said at a news conference on Wednesday morning. “This thing’s powerful. If you’re inside, just hunker down until it gets past you.”
Travellers due to visit Florida in the coming days should check with their travel provider first, since flights may be cancelled. Airlines in the US have already cancelled more than 850 flights on Wednesday.
Refunds for cancellations directly resulting from hurricanes or tropical storms should be sought directly from the airline, accommodation provider or tour operator you have booked with. 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 are unlikely to be covered for resulting disruption.
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.”
Will the hurricane hit popular holiday destinations?
The storm has already brought flooding to the streets of Florida, from Tampa to the capital, Tallahassee. Tallahassee Mayor, John Dailey, has urged everyone to shelter, saying it was too late to risk going outside.
Florida residents living in vulnerable coastal areas had previously been ordered to pack up and leave as Idalia gained strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Orlando, one of the state’s most popular holiday destinations, lies in Orange County, which is under a tropical storm warning from the National Weather Service.
While Orlando is not expected to be hit as badly other areas of Florida, portions of Orange County are anticipating winds of 39 to 74mph.
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have taken precautions, closing some attractions and modifying early opening hours, but business will largely be as usual.
Universal Orlando released the following statement: “Universal Orlando Resort theme parks including Universal Studios Florida, Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Volcano Bay are planning to open and operate as normal at 9am on Wednesday 30 August.
“However, we will not offer our usual early park admission benefit for on-site hotel guests, select annual passholders and other select travel trade clients on this day while our teams prepare the parks for opening after the storm.”
Walt Disney World said: “Due to the inclement weather, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park, Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf will be closed on 30 August.”