Editor’s Note: Find the latest Hurricane Idalia coverage here.

CNN  — 

Hurricane Idalia could hit Florida’s west coast as an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center warned as Idalia continued to intensify and churn toward the state late Tuesday.

Officials across coastal communities repeatedly pleaded with residents Tuesday to immediately evacuate, stressing that high waters from the storm could prove deadly and first responders will not be able to help until the storm passes. But, desperate to save their homes and businesses and not leave others behind, some Floridians are staying put.

“If you haven’t evacuated, you’re north of Fort Myers, you’re up into the central Gulf Coast, northern Big Bend area, if you have not evacuated, you need to do that right now. You need to drop what you’re doing, you need to go to your room, pack up, pack your things, and get to safety,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Executive Director Kevin Guthrie warned Tuesday evening.

“We’re going to experience historical flood surge.”

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The storm was at Category 2 with sustained winds of up to 110 mph late Tuesday shortly before midnight, centered roughly 120 miles southwest of Florida’s Cedar Key, the hurricane center said.

Its outer bands have been lashing Florida for hours, already causing flooding in some coastal areas. It’s expected to continue strengthening into a Category 4 hurricane – meaning sustained winds of at least 130 mph – before it reaches Florida’s Big Bend coast Wednesday morning.

“Destructive life-threatening” winds will hit the area where Idalia’s core moves onshore, the hurricane center warned. Storm surge inundation of 12 to 16 feet above ground level – high enough to stack a wall of seawater halfway up the second floor of an average building – and destructive waves could be “catastrophic” between the Wakulla-Jefferson County line and Yankeetown, Florida, the center said.

Strong wind will spread inland across northern Florida and southern Georgia near Idalia’s track, likely knocking out power along the way, the hurricane center said.

“There is great potential for death and catastrophic devastation,” the Taylor County Sheriff’s Office warned on Tuesday, saying coastal residents were ordered to evacuate. “Storm surge on the coastal regions are projected as non-survivable.” The county, just southeast of the state capital, Tallahassee, is part of the Big Bend region.

“That is storm surge that, if you’re there while that hits, it’s going to be very difficult to survive,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Tuesday evening news conference.

A tornado watch is also in effect for more than 7 million people across central and western Florida, including Tampa, until 6 a.m. Wednesday. Short-lived and usually weak tornadoes are often associated with the outer bands of tropical systems that make landfall.

‘We haven’t seen a storm this bad, ever’

On the island city of Cedar Key, on the southern side of the Big Bend, Mayor Heath Davis urged residents under a mandatory evacuation order to leave immediately.

“This storm is worse than we’ve ever seen. My family has been here for many generations, we haven’t seen a storm this bad, ever,” he said Tuesday. All emergency services will stop Tuesday evening as winds pick up, the mayor said, adding he does not want to put employees’ lives in danger.

Cedar Key could be cut off by the high storm surge, National Hurricane Center Deputy Director Jamie Rhome said.


Parts of Levy County, where Cedar Key is, could see “powerful battering waves” and life-threatening flooding, and many buildings could be damaged or washed away, the National Weather Service said.

DeSantis stressed Tuesday that residents under evacuation orders should leave now, as weather conditions will only deteriorate.

“If you do choose to stay in one of the evacuation zones, first responders will not be able to get you until after the storm has passed,” he added. Nearly 600 urban search and rescue personnel were prepared to be deployed to help in those efforts, the governor said.

Storm surge was captured on video Tuesday by several residents across southwest Florida, including Fort Myers Beach, a community still reeling from the devastation it suffered last fall from Hurricane Ian – which leveled coastal Florida and left more than 100 dead. Florida resident Scott Martin shared a video on Facebook showing roads in Fort Myers Beach already flooded and the “storm hasn’t even hit,” he wrote.

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Some Floridians stay to protect homes, livelihoods

Chase Norwood, whose family owns the Sea Hag Marina in Steinhatchee, has stayed behind despite warnings to leave, telling CNN’s John Berman the marina is “pretty much our livelihood.” The marina prides itself on being “one of the largest and most well-equipped marinas on Florida’s Big Bend,” according to its website.

“We got to see the destruction Hurricane Ian did down in Fort Myers … We’ve seen stuff I didn’t know a storm could do, and so it was a real big eye-opener to my whole family,” Norwood said. “With the insurance and stuff, we’re all worried and that’s why we’re kind of staying here to see if there’s anything that we can do to protect what we have.”

Lori Leigh Batts-Bennett already evacuated her condo in Steinhatchee, but told CNN Tuesday night many people chose to stay behind, hoping to protect their home and belongings.

She says she’s worried about what the storm’s damage will mean for that community.

“Steinhatchee does not have the infrastructure to handle these storms,” Batts-Bennett said. “I fear that if this is catastrophic, the people that make Steinhatchee will not be able to be in Steinhatchee because they wont be able to rebuild.”

“The landscape of Steinhatchee will be changed forever,” she added.

Governor urges residents to seek higher ground

Residents should beware of flood risks, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell told “CNN This Morning” on Tuesday.

Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press Wire
A house is seen knocked off its foundation on Wednesday, August 30, in Horseshoe Beach, Florida, in the Big Bend region where Idalia made landfall.
Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
People clean debris from a damaged building in Horseshoe Beach on August 31.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
A lineman works to restore service on Thursday, August 31, in Perry, Florida.
Cheney Orr/Reuters
Wreckage of a home is seen in Keaton Beach, Florida, on August 31.
Cheney Orr/Reuters
Jewell Baggett sits on a bathtub amid the wreckage of the home built by her grandfather, where she grew up and three generations of her family lived, in Horseshoe Beach on August 30.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
People work to clear I-10 of fallen trees near Madison, Florida, on August 30.
Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EFE via ZUMA Press
A person looks at the damage inside a destroyed house in Horseshoe Beach on August 30.
Thomas Simonetti/For The Washington Post/Getty Images
A boarded-up home is seen in Steinhatchee, Florida, on August 30.
Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News/USA Today Network
Samarra Mullis, right, and Jack Lemburg make sandwiches for residents who sought shelter at St. Michael's and All Angels Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia, on August 30.
Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/Zuma Press
Rescue workers walk through water in Steinhatchee, looking for people in need of help on August 30.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Donnye Franklin helps a friend try to get floodwaters out of his store in Crystal River, Florida, on August 30.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A pickup truck sits halfway into a canal in Horseshoe Beach on August 30.
Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich/EFE via ZUMA Press
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis holds a press conference in Perry on August 30.
Richard Burkhart/Savannah Morning News/USA Today Network
Residents talk with Savannah Alderman Nick Palumbo by an uprooted tree in Savannah on August 30.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
In an aerial view, a vehicle drives through a flooded street in downtown Crystal River on August 30.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Ken Kruse looks out at floodwaters surrounding his apartment complex in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on August 30.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images
People work to free a vehicle that was stuck in storm debris near Mayo, Florida, on August 30.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Makatla Ritchter, left, and her mother, Keiphra Line, wade through floodwaters after having to evacuate their home in Tarpon Springs on August 30.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Florida's Fort Myers Beach is seen during high tide ahead of Hurricane Idalia on August 29.
Christian Monterrosa/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Shelves are left empty at a Target store in Gainesville, Florida, on August 29.
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Electrical line technicians walk among hundreds of trucks at Duke Energy's staging location in Sumterville, Florida, on August 29.
Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union/AP
Reagan Ortagus, 1, sits in her car seat as her father, Tyler, fills sandbags in St. Johns County, Florida, on August 29.
This satellite image, taken at 11:15 a.m. ET on August 29, shows Hurricane Idalia moving toward Florida.
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
Ana Iris Aguiar stands at the front door of her home after Idalia passed La Coloma, Cuba, on August 29.
Marco Bello/Reuters
A man places plywood in front of a store in Cedar Key as he prepares for Hurricane Idalia on August 29.
Adrees Latif/Reuters
Pike Electric workers fortify power lines in Clearwater, Florida, on Tuesday, August 29.
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
A dog named Samson looks at his owner, not pictured, as he comes back to a flooded home in Playa Majana, Cuba, on August 29.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Furniture is piled high inside Victor Cassano's home in Suwannee, Florida, as he prepares for Idalia on August 29.
Chris O'Meara/AP
Kiosks at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter are covered in protective wrapping at the Tampa International Airport on August 29. All flights from the airport were canceled for the day.
Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images
A couple is seen outside their house in a flooded area of Batabanó, Cuba, on Monday, August 28.
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
A man is evacuated from a flooded street as Idalia made landfall in Guanimar, Cuba, on August 28.
Doug Engle/USA Today/Reuters
Home Depot employee Sharon Walsh fills a cart with cases of water as customers prepare for Idalia in Ocala, Florida, on August 28.
Andrew West/The News-Press/USA Today
Fort Myers Beach resident Christine Willis prepares to evacuate the area on August 28. Her home was destroyed in Hurricane Ian, and she and her husband lost everything. They said they are not taking any chances and will stay in a hotel until Idalia passes.

“The No. 1 killer in all of these storms is water, whether it’s the storm surge that’s going to happen at the coast or the excessive rainfall that might happen inland that causes urban flash flooding,” she said.

Storm surge accounts for nearly half of all hurricane-related fatalities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says, and is the reason behind most storm evacuations.

State and local officials reminded residents they often don’t have to go far – tens of miles, versus hundreds – to get to a safer place.

“You do not have to leave the state,” DeSantis said. “Get to higher ground in a safe structure. You can ride the storm out there and go back to your home.”

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What else to know

Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat/USA Today Network
Tallahassee residents fill sandbags as they prepare for the storm.

• Evacuations in at least 28 counties: Alachua, Baker, Citrus, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Gulf, Hamilton, Hernando, Hillsborough, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Levy, Madison, Manatee, Marion, Nassau, Pasco, Pinellas, Putnam, Sarasota, Suwannee, Sumter, Taylor, Union, Volusia and Wakulla have all issued evacuation orders, some mandatory. State tolls are waived in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Pasco, Pinellas, and Sumter counties, DeSantis said Tuesday. All counties have at least one pet-friendly shelter, the governor added, urging residents to “please take care of your pets.”

• Air and train travel halted: Major airlines have canceled hundreds of flights as Tampa International Airport suspended commercial operations Tuesday and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport Terminal building closed Tuesday afternoon. Amtrak has canceled at least 12 East Coast routes and is modifying others.

• Emergencies declared: DeSantis expanded an emergency declaration to 49 of 67 Florida counties on Monday morning. Several local jurisdictions have also declared emergencies. North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have also declared states of emergency

• Power outages expected: DeSantis told residents to prepare to be without power. “If you are in the path of the storm, you should expect power outages so please prepare for that,” the governor told residents Sunday.

• Hospital system suspending services: Patients will be transferred from at least three hospitals: HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, HCA Florida Trinity West Hospital and HCA Florida West Tampa Hospital.

CNN meteorologists Robert Shackelford, Monica Garrett and Taylor Ward and CNN’s Sara Smart, Eric Zerkel, Rachel Ramirez, Nouran Salahieh, Joe Sutton, Jillian Sykes, Mary Gilbert, Melissa Alonso, Devon Sayers and Jennifer Henderson contributed to this report.