Port Tampa Bay Braces for Hurricane Idalia

Tropical Storm Idalia (center) strengthens as it approaches western Cuba, Aug. 28. Hurricane Franklin can be seen at upper right. (NOAA)

Published Aug 28, 2023 6:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

Florida's maritime sector is bracing for the arrival of Tropical Storm Idalia, which is expected to strengthen to hurricane force as it heads north across the Gulf of Mexico. 

Idalia is passing over far western Cuba on Monday evening, dropping heavy rain, and its wind intesity is estimated at about 60 knots. As it speeds up and passes over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, it will be over a patch of unusually warm water. Upper-air conditions will not add much wind shear, which would control its power. These factors indicate that Idalia will likely undergo rapid intensification into a major hurricane over the next 36 hours, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Regardless of exact intensity at landfall, Idalia will arrive in an area of coastal Florida that is very susceptible to storm surge. The NHC predicts a "significant storm surge event" along Florida's northeastern Gulf coast later this week. The peak could be in the range of 8-12 feet above ground level in the areas most affected. The worst of the impact will occur well north of Tampa, but a storm surge warning is in effect for Tampa Bay and the Big Bend region. 

Florida's emergency management division has warned that Idalia could become a Category 4 hurricane before landfall, and will likely retain full hurricane strength even as it moves inland across the northern part of the state. A state of emergency is in effect in nearly 50 counties. 

At Port Tampa Bay, inbound traffic has already been shut down and the Captain of the Port has set Port Condition Yankee. The announcement asks operators of large merchant vessels to prepare to depart within 24 hours or make arrangements with the Coast Guard to stay in the port. 

Meanwhile, the port's Citgo fuel terminal has had an unfortunate fuel contamination incident at an inconvenient time for area residents. It appears that a quantity of diesel was transferred into tanks holding automotive gasoline, contaminating the gas. The gas was then distributed and sold at dozens of stations around the Tampa Bay area. 

Florida's consumer services department said that there was a strong chance that any station supplied by Citgo's Port Tampa terminal likely had contaminated gasoline for sale beginning at 1000 hours on Saturday. A list of the gas stations affected has been distributed to the public, along with a warning not to use the fuel. 

"Basically it was just human error — they just put diesel in tanks that were supposed to be regular gas," said Gov. Ron DeSantis at a press briefing. "Hopefully we don't have that many people that are affected by this."

For now, fuel operations and other cargo movements connected to storm preparation are still allowed at Port Tampa Bay, though routine cargo movements have been shut down.

At Jacksonville, on Florida's Atlantic coast, the U.S. Navy is preparing to send warships out to sea for safety. Navy vessels will depart from Naval Station Mayport by Tuesday, or will complete heavy weather mooring if they have to stay in port. Navy aircraft will evacuate from the region's airfields or will be stowed in hurricane-rated hangars.