When Hurricane Idalia was approaching the west coast of Florida in the early hours of Wednesday morning, forecasters warned gusts up to 130mph were set to tear apart Tallahassee and wreak havoc on the surrounding areas.
But with Floridians braced for impact, the twister turned and slowed thanks to a natural phenomenon where the wall around the eye of the hurricane is ‘replaced’ as the system restructures.
Although the hurricane brought significant damage and led to at least two deaths, experts cautioned that the damage could have been far worse.
According to the National Hurricane Center, Idalia was marked as a Category 4 hurricane at 6am Wednesday, before wind speeds slowed into the 120mph range and it was demoted to a Category 3.
Aerial storm monitors also revealed the close shave saw the hurricane make a last-minute turn before it reached Tallahassee, sparing the more densely populated area from the eye of the storm as it made landfall to the north of the city on Keaton Beach shortly before 8am.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning the eye of Hurricane Idalia underwent an ‘eyewall replacement cycle’, a natural phenomenon that could have saved further destruction
The twister brought widespread destruction to the west coast of Florida, and at least two people lost their lives in separate weather-related crashes hours before Idalia made landfall
The natural process that potentially saved lives is known among meteoroligists as an ‘eyewall replacement cycle’, and are a common part of the makeup of a hurricane before they make landfall.
As storms become more powerful, the eye of the storm narrows and becomes tighter while it speeds up. When it reaches its peak velocity, a new eyewall can form around the epicenter.
‘Like a figure skater pulling in her arms versus holding her arms out, the hurricane spins with a lot more energy, power, and ferocity when it has a tighter eye,’ said Ryan Maue, a meteorologist and former chief scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When this occurs, the eye of the storm loses momentum, which occurred Wednesday morning as Idalia was relegated to a Category 3 hurricane.
While an ‘eyewall replacement cycle’ reduces the potency of a storm, it also increases its scope as the epicentre spreads out while gusts slow down. If this process has enough time, the storm can become far more powerful than before as wind speeds are able to pick back up.
After the storm reduced in potency, forecasters were relieved to see it turn north away from the state capital of Tallahassee and to the less populated Keaton Beach
The length of time the replacement takes can vary from as little as 12 to 18 hours,to as long as 2 to 3 days to complete, according to NOAA. These cycles can happen multiple times on a twister’s journey.
But in the case of Idalia, the replacement occurred close enough to Florida that the friction of the landfall reduced its wind speeds.
Donald Jones, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Lake Charles, Louisiana, said that forecasters believe the cycle was ‘beneficial from a timing perspective’ given the significant damage that was still seen across the affected areas under the weakened storm.
In Tallahassee, home to about 200,000 people, Florida State University and Governor Ron DeSantis’ mansion – which was struck by a falling tree in the storm – residents saw significant damage but were spared the eye of the storm.
Instead of striking the state capital, Idalia rotated north-northeast and made landfall near Keaton Beach, the Hurricane Center announced at 7:45 a.m Wednesday.
‘Had that turn not occurred, there would have been much more devastating impacts here in Tallahassee,’ said Kelly Godsey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Tallahassee, who told the New York Post that he and his colleagues slept inside the weather office on the night of the storm to help monitor the situation.
‘Eyewall replacement cycles are common in major hurricanes, and so when you see that, it does lead to some temporary weakening,’ he added.
Businesses across the state were hit hard, and several people revealed that they may have to leave their homes permanently
Entire homes were razed to just their foundations in the storm
While some may have been relieved when Idalia touched down with less force than once feared, the effects were severe for thousands as the damage stretched across much of the west coast of the state and into Georgia and South Carolina.
After slowing before it reached the shore, the National Weather Service monitored the storm moving forwards at 18mph, a surprisingly faster than average speed that meterologists said may have been both a good and a bad side effect.
The speed saw the storm move through certain areas fairly quickly which limited some of the damage, however it also allowed it to maintain momentum and continue on its path.
Idalia’s potency and wide radius saw the storm reach large swaths of Florida before touching Georgia and the Carolinas, with the twister still causing damage Thursday as storm surges were seen in North Carolina.
The hurricane, which reached land on Wednesday morning, is expected to have caused billions of dollars of damage
The potency of the storm saw the damage stretch from the west coast of Florida (pictured in Horseshoe Beach, Florida) all the way to North Carolina
Entire towns were levelled by the huricane as residents in Cedar Key, Florida (pictured) are tasked with cleaning debris from the twister
The full extent of the damage is yet to be determined, with officials fearing that the cleanup could cost billions.
Entire homes were levelled by the torrential storm, with between 4,000 and 6,000 homes destroyed in Florida’s Pasco County alone, county administrator Mike Carballa said
Much of Cedar Key, an island home to 700 people in the eye of the storm, was believed to be underwater on Thursday, as officials warned the death toll could climb as all the small towns along the coast are searched.
”We have multiple trees down, debris in the roads – do not come,’ said Cedar Key’s fire and rescue department in a social media post.
The destruction also led President Joe Biden to formally declare a major disaster, which allows the White House to funnel federal funds to the affected areas.
. ‘The President’s action makes federal funding available to affected individuals in the counties of Citrus, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Levy, Suwannee, and Taylor,’ the White House said in a statement Thursday. Biden said he will visit Florida on Saturday.
Florida Highway Patrol officers reported two people dying in separate weather-related crashes hours before Idalia made landfall, although no direct hurricane-related deaths have been confirmed after Idalia reached the coast.
In one case, a 59-year-old man in Gainesville died after he lost control of his truck amid extreme rain on the roads and crashed into a ditch.
Another motorist, a 40-year-old man in Pasco County, was driving ‘too fast for the conditions’ and fatally struck a tree, the highway patrol said. Neither victim has been identified.
The storm brought strong winds to Savannah, Georgia, as it made its way toward the Carolinas and was forecast to move along the coast before heading out into the Atlantic Ocean.
The National Weather Service said Idalia spawned a tornado that briefly touched down in Charleston, South Carolina, where two people suffered minor injures as the winds sent a car flying.