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Florida residents are assessing the damage after Hurricane Idalia

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden heads to Florida this morning to visit areas hardest hit by Hurricane Idalia. Thousands of residents in north Florida remain without power. They're still cleaning up the damage from the storm surge and heavy winds. Idalia made landfall Wednesday as a Category 3 hurricane in the small town of Keaton Beach, and it continued to tear through Georgia and the Carolinas before going out to sea. So far, Florida officials have confirmed that Idalia is responsible for a relative handful of deaths. But Stephanie Colombini with member station WUSF tells us that things could have been much worse. Stephanie joins us now from Tampa. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: Florida's second time dealing with a major hurricane in less than a year - how are people handling it?

COLOMBINI: You know, we're just weeks away from the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Ian. That was a Category 4 when it hit southwest Florida and also went on to affect much of the state, and so I think people are relieved to see the destruction after this storm isn't as bad. Ian was responsible for about 150 deaths last year. It caused over $100 billion in damage. And, you know, many residents are still struggling to recover.

One of the big differences is where Ian hit. Ian was in a populated area of the state, whereas Idalia hit Florida's Big Bend. It's also known as the Nature Coast, so it's, you know, more rural, small fishing villages and forests. And so in the big picture, Idalia not being as destructive is, of course, a good thing. But, you know, anytime there's a loss of life or property, it's painful.

SIMON: And, Stephanie, you're in Tampa, once again spared a direct hit, but a lot of problems with flooding. What did you see?

COLOMBINI: You know, one of the challenges with Idalia was that even though the eyewall was far off the coast when it passed the Tampa area, it came as we're experiencing what are known as king tides, basically higher than normal tides. But so a lot of people woke up Wednesday morning thinking they were in the clear, and then the storm surge flooding started to pour in. So I talked with a man named Kevin Bunt. He lives near the beach about an hour north of Tampa in Hernando County. Bunt stayed with a relative in an elevated home to avoid the water.

KEVIN BUNT: It just kept coming up, and we watched the mailbox disappear. And then it came back.

COLOMBINI: That was when the tides receded. You know, Bunt's own house ended up getting about three feet of water in it. Some businesses were also hit hard. Kathryn Birren - she sells local seafood to restaurants in the area, and her building had a lot of damage. I stopped by there while she was cleaning up.

KATHRYN BIRREN: All the walls have to be gutted. We've got electrical problems, panels that are going to cost $6,000 to replace, just all kinds of things.

SIMON: Stephanie, what kind of help are the folks there getting?

COLOMBINI: Well, President Biden approved Florida's disaster declaration on Thursday, and that makes federal money available to help residents in seven of the hardest-hit counties with things like temporary housing or home repairs. But Governor Ron DeSantis says he plans to ask the White House to include more counties in that declaration. The governor also activated a $20 million emergency loan program for small businesses in 25 counties. You know, it's going to take some time to properly assess the damage across the state, and people are still cleaning up this weekend. And applying for aid could also be challenging for some people who live in the rural areas that were hit hardest by Idalia.

SIMON: Stephanie Colombini with WUSF in Tampa. Thanks so much for being with us.

COLOMBINI: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.