Hurricane Idalia got much stronger overnight and shifted west. South Georgians weren’t ready

Huge trees and branches line the streets of Valdosta, 70 miles north of Apalachee Bay, Florida.

Homeowners assess damage 24 hours after the storm went through, gathering debris. Traffic lights are black and restaurants are closed without any power.

Chainsaws, generators, and heavy-moving equipment are like gold if you can get your hands on them.

Hurricane Idalia briefly became a Category 4 storm in Apalachee Bay before making landfall in the coastal towns of Florida’s Big Bend. The hurricane intensified rapidly, becoming a larger storm with higher winds that spread damage deeper inland to unexpecting south Georgians.

“All we got was a hurricane advisory early that morning,” Valdosta resident Daniel Shahan, who lives on Gornto Road near Baytree Road, told McClatchy.

When Shahan woke up on Wednesday morning at 5 to light rain, he did not foresee six hours later that hurricane-force winds would rip half a dozen trees in his front and back yards from the ground.

The Valdosta airport recorded gusts of 67 mph at 10 a.m., according to Lowndes County Emergency Management.

Three of the trees broke through the roof of Shahan’s house.

“It was like boom, boom, boom!” Shahan said. “My wife screamed and I grabbed our two hound dogs and ran for cover.”

The first tree fell when the eye of Idalia hit Apalachee Bay. He assumed the worst was over.

“I look at my phone and the eye is here,” he said. “What the hell happened?”

Idalia’s aftermath and the cost

Daniel Shahan stands in his front yard along Gornto Road in Valdosta Thursday after Hurricane Idalia left widespread damage in south Georgia.

Shahan was using his truck to power a fan to keep his dogs cool during the 90-degree Thursday afternoon, while balancing quotes from tree removal service companies.

“This guy offered $10,000 for everything,” he said and pointed to the man standing in his driveway. “That’s the cheapest yet. The first guy that came by this morning wanted $40,000.”

Shahan has no home insurance and is looking for work as a contracted garage door labor man.

With no home insurance Shahan is likely going to set up a GoFundMe to help with costs.

There are several trees in Shahan’s backyard that tore down transmission lines. His yard is a mess.

“All of the power my neighbors need is going straight into my backyard,” he told McClatchy, chuckling.

“That was really scary because I thought the tree could catch on fire.”

Looking down Gortro Road, the damage is the same: trees in roofs, transmission lines down, in the streets, and white trucks beginning repair. As of Thursday morning, 230,000 residents throughout Southern Georgia were without power, according to Georgia Power.

Downed power lines and trees lie at the corner of Hwy. 122 and Hagan Bridge Road in Hahira Thursday after Hurricane Idalia stormed through the area Wednesday.

Down in Apalachee Bay, where Idalia’s most severe winds and rain came through, some residents evacuated and some stayed. Rob Olin, 70, an oyster farmer who evacuated, returned to a largely undamaged house. He was lucky.

“The storm ended up taking a hard right turn about 35 miles south of us,” he said. The damage was far worse there.

Olin has lived in Apalachee Bay for 25 years. He grows oysters in his man-made aqua-culture “field” in the bay. Native oyster farming no longer exists in the bay due to a myriad of factors, including warmer ocean temperatures. The warmer ocean temperatures are brought on by absorbing heat from climate change.

Olin decided to evacuate a few hours after he heard murmurs of the hurricane reaching Category 2, 3 or even 4 on Tuesday morning.

“At 10 a.m., we made the decision to evacuate once they said it was a Cat-2 or 3,” Olin said. “At noon we were gone.”

Olin and his wife stayed at a motor lodge in Tallahassee, where there they lost power at one point. They returned Thursday morning to his oyster farm, Estuary Oysters, a “tangled mess”.

“Our oyster cages are all entangled — it looks like a feral cat got into a ball of yarn,” Olin said.

He estimates it could take weeks to reorganize the cages of oysters that are very heavy and all of the nylon string attached to them.

His oysters end up on plates in seafood restaurants all over the country. Olin suggests that the work he is doing is helping to restore the bay as oysters are the “bees of the seas” and the “original eco-engineers” that filter water and create oyster bars that help storm surges during hurricanes.

“There have been a lot more storms like this in the past five years–a lot more,” he said. “When I saw this system start to develop in the Yucatan my mind immediately went to Hurricane Michael from 2018.”

Olin drew a good comparison. Like Idalia, Hurricane Michael also underwent rapid intensification. In fewer than 48-hours it went from Category 1 to Category 4 and headed straight for Olin’s home.

Warm ocean temperatures fueled Idalia

Rapid intensification used to be rare.

“We have seen it more and more and it’s now becoming part of our common language in the science community,” Professor Gabriel Vecchi of Geosciences at Princeton said. “Its likelihood has doubled in the last 40 years.”

There are a handful of factors that contribute to rapid intensification including wind shear, cold upper atmosphere, humidity and warmer ocean surface. The ocean temperatures are well above the average baseline of 1971-2000.

“For Idalia, the ingredients were all there,” Vecchi said.

From 1980-2021, 170 landfalling Atlantic tropical cyclones experienced rapid intensification above the 30 kt threshold, according to Climate Central.

Cary Mock teaches climatology and hurricane classes at the University of South Carolina in the geography department and suggests the “very warm surfaces go well beyond 100 feet deep and help with rapid intensification.”

“The last six years have been very frequent with rapid intensification,” he said. “Major hurricanes are getting stronger and wetter. Places like Valdosta were not as prone to big flooding [previously].”

In 2006, scientists examined tree rings in Valdsota, to understand when major hurricanes came through, using isotopes. The isotope data from the study suggests that hurricane water was high in 1846. Mock suggests Valdosta has not experienced anything like Idalia since the 19th century.

“Technically what happened in Idalia isn’t unprecedented because it happened before,” he said.

The effect that rapid intensification means less time to prepare.

“People usually need 2-3 days for a major hurricane, and this hurricane changed rapidly in 24 hours, that is too short to prepare,” Mock said.

NOAA made a new model for analysis and forecasting hurricanes that includes rapid intensification analysis within the model. Mock suggests this is the first year of operation for the Hurricane Analysis Forecasting System (HAFS) model and it was used for Idalia.

“The HAFS will be our future,” he said. “It’s what I teach my students about in class now.”

Of the 56 tropical cyclones that have caused at least $1 billion in damage in the U.S. from 1980-2021, 73% underwent rapid intensification, according to Climate Central.

Valdosta sees rapid recovery

Electrical crews work to restore power along Jerry Jones Drive in Valdosta Thursday. Thousands of city residents were still without power Friday.

Even with the new models and predictions, Valdosta residents are inexperienced to hurricanes coming this far inland. But, the Red Cross was prepared.

The Red Cross had makeshift shelters ready throughout Valdosta up to Columbus for evacuees from Florida and local residents.

“We had over 5,000 people in 100 shelters in the community (including non–Red Cross affiliated shelters),” Susan Everitt, executive director of the American Red Cross of East Central Georgia, said.“They can come here and have a meal, have a cool place to stay, and spend the night if they need to.”

The Park Methodist church in Valdosta received dozens of visitors and eventually switched to a baptist church 15 miles north in Hahire due to capacity needs. Thursday evening 60 people stayed in the Red Cross shelter there.

During the day, T-Mobile gave out smartphones with 4G internet, unlimited text and calls, for 30-days to people affected by the disaster. They were just outside of Bethany Baptist Church.

“We started this program two years ago,” Monika Thornton, T-Mobile Disaster deployment employee, said. “We work with the Red Cross to find people impacted by the hurricane.”

Thornton said they gave out 35 phones Thursday.

Red Cross volunteers estimate they will be hosting at the church until at least Sept. 11.

Georgia Power has been busy with now only 16,000 customers without power, restoring electricity to 93% of customers in the last 24 hours with the help of Alabama Power and Mississippi Power companies.

“We’re not even in the meat of hurricane season yet,” Vecchi said. “Hurricane core season is September and October and can extend into January.”

Scores of homes near the core of Valdosta were damaged by large trees felled by Hurricane Idalia. That meant gridlock as residents, tree removal companies and utility workers jostled to all do the jobs they needed to do.