As a low-lying coastal Florida community with the Gulf of Mexico overwhelming the city’s waterway, Crystal River Mayor and lifelong resident Joe Meek said Hurricane Idalia fueled the area's worst storm surge since the "no-name" hurricane three decades ago.
"We saw significant flooding there, and I would say that this storm surge is on par with that," Meek, 43, told USA TODAY on Wednesday. "And that was our worst flooding event we had in decades."
Hurricane Idalia, now a tropical storm, barreled through Florida’s Big Bend early Wednesday as a Category 3 tropical cyclone, causing calamitous storm surge and flooding for hundreds of miles. The system then made its way through southeastern Georgia and the Carolinas Wednesday evening.
While officials are still calculating totals, Meek estimates Crystal River, a tourism hub on the coast of western Florida, was hit with seven to nine feet of storm surge. "Most of the roads throughout the city at this point are still underwater," Meek confirmed.
Crystal River is home to about 3,500 residents and attracts a wide tourist crowd for its natural attractions, including wildlife refuges, natural springs, and the Crystal River waterway, Meek said.
Older homes face the brunt of flooding
Meek’s home, a newer structure with the first floor about 15 feet off the ground, was spared from the surge Wednesday. Other homes in Crystal River, many of them older structures, weren’t as lucky.
Newer building codes require homes to be built higher off the ground to prevent damage in flood events, according to the mayor. But older homes that were built before codes were updated sit lower and are often hardest hit in surges, Meek said, a problem exacerbated in coastal communities.
The surge Wednesday brought four to six feet of water into some Crystal River homes, he noted.
"As we get newer structures, we will ensure that as we build, we plan for these types of things going forward," Meek said.
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Tourism is the town’s driving force
As the proudly touted home of the manatee with an active downtown and federal wildlife sanctuaries, Meek said tourism is Crystal River’s driving economic force. Citrus County welcomes about one million tourists a year, he noted.
While there’s some concern about the flood's effect on tourism, Meek said Crystal River’s visitors generally come for the natural sights, which are still well intact, and he anticipates speedy recovery.
"Our tourists come to enjoy the river, and once the tide goes down, which it is right now, obviously the river is there, and the ability to enjoy that is there," Meek said.
Right now, the mayor’s focus is on the residents and getting them back in their homes, he said.
"It’s a sad day for Crystal River, but we’re a resilient community that has been through this before, and I'm confident that we will come out of it stronger," Meek said. "But unfortunately, we've got a lot of people that are hurting right now."
Rebuilding efforts ahead
While the town was spared from wind damage as Hurricane Idalia steered further west from Crystal River, Meek said he anticipates significant flood damage to homes and businesses because of the storm surge, with recovery expected to take up to a year.
The water has begun to recede Wednesday, but a lot of standing water remains in the way of recovery efforts. Meek said once the roads are clear, residents will be allowed to return.
"We've been through this before. We know what needs to happen," the mayor said. "And as soon as the water recedes, and we’re able to start cleaning up, we will do that."
Many residents and business owners heeded warnings about the storm before it was too late, Meek said, and evacuations began two days ago.