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Hurricane season ends for Florida, but recovery efforts will continue for years

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For a second consecutive hurricane season, Florida took a direct hit from a major storm.

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But while the 2023 season will end next week, restoration efforts from Hurricane Idalia will continue for years in rural North Florida, particularly for people in the agriculture industry. State lawmakers are expected to see requests for more money. Further tweaks are needed to state and local storm-recovery planning.

Still, the season could have been much worse for Florida.

Initially forecast to be “near normal,” with 12 to 17 named storms, the six-month season is approaching its Nov. 30 end as one of the most active on record with 20 named systems so far.

Luckily, few affected Florida. And the storms that did, topped by Idalia, didn’t approach the levels of destruction and death that the state experienced with Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole during the brutal 2022 season.

State Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Idalia’s landfall in the lightly populated Keaton Beach area of Taylor County as a Category 3 storm with sustained winds of 125 mph was “A best place for that to go,” even if it did “cause catastrophic damage to numerous rural counties in the Big Bend area.”

“The National Weather Service says we had about 12-foot of storm surge there. But you cannot see any results of a 12-foot storm surge,” Guthrie said. “That means that a 12-foot storm surge most likely went into a completely uninhabited area.”

While noting state and federal assistance, Mayor Heath Davis of hard-hit Cedar Key credited the resiliency of people living in the coastal region for rolling up their sleeves and moving on to the point that “we were able to host our annual Seafood Festival 42 days later.”

While his community is “about four businesses short of being back to where we were,” Davis told a state House panel on Nov. 13 that continued assistance will be needed for the region’s clam industry. He said the industry is “really struggling. And that’s a large part of our community.”

Guthrie credited lessons from hurricanes Irma in 2017, Michael in 2018, and Ian and Nicole in 2022 for helping speed the recovery after Idalia.

“We were able to make Hurricane Idalia one of the fastest responses, and now recoveries, that we’ve ever done in the history of the state of Florida,” Guthrie said. “Two-hundred and forty-seven million dollars (were) put out within the first 80 days of a disaster. Those are things that we have never done here in the Division of Emergency Management.”

But emergency officials are looking at making several changes after Idalia.

READ: Hurricane Idalia: Video shows widespread street flooding on Cedar Key after storm passes

One will be revising contracts to extend assistance to local emergency-management directors, who might have a staff of one or two people in rural counties, in preparing for disasters and responding.

“We can’t just go in there for two weeks and then be done,” Guthrie said. “We’re going to have to figure out how we’re there for 30, 45, 60 days to wrap around that local emergency manager, to help them with the initial recovery process, as well as the response process.”

Guthrie said state emergency officials also will ask lawmakers during the 2024 legislative session for additional technology to further automate purchasing orders and to increase a small-contract unit staff from two to five people to handle invoices and assist counties with procurement contracts.

Such requests will come after lawmakers during a special session this month approved just over $288 million for Idalia-related issues.

After making landfall in Taylor County on Aug. 30, Idalia caused damage in other parts of rural North Florida such as Madison and Lafayette counties before crossing into South Georgia. Early projections put losses from Idalia at between $3 billion and $5 billion, including $500 million related to the National Flood Insurance Program.

By comparison, Hurricane Ian, which made landfall in September 2022 in Southwest Florida with 150 mph sustained winds and a storm surge reaching 15 feet, has projected overall losses of $112 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The total topped Hurricane Irma as the costliest in state history, as Ian continued causing damage as it crossed through Florida.

Agricultural damages caused by Idalia, from damage to poultry and aquaculture operations to field crops and timber, have been estimated at $447 million by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Ian, which caused major damage to the citrus industry, took a $1.03 billion bite out of the agriculture industry.

Four of the 10 deaths attributed to Idalia occurred in Florida, including a windsurfer in the Banana River off Merritt Island. Ian caused a reported 161 deaths, including 150 in Florida.

Idalia wasn’t Florida’s only brush with the season.

Tropical Storm Arlene in early June brought several inches of rain to South Florida. Tropical Storm Harold was also a South Florida rainmaker in August before it eventually landed in Texas.

In mid-September, dangerous surf and rip currents created by Hurricane Lee --- churning far off the East Coast --- resulted in a teen drowning in the Fernandina Beach area.

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