Soldiers in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2023, prepare boats for search and rescue missions after Hurricane Idalia strikes the west coast of Florida from the Gulf of Mexico.

Soldiers in Tallahassee, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2023, prepare boats for search and rescue missions after Hurricane Idalia strikes the west coast of Florida from the Gulf of Mexico. (Christian Wilson/U.S. Army)

Military and local officials across western Florida and into southern Georgia were preparing Tuesday for damaging wind and rains as Hurricane Idalia grew to a Category 1 hurricane and appeared poised to quickly strengthen ahead of landfall Wednesday.

Officials at MacDill Air Force Base shared a brief video Tuesday showing an abandoned flightline at the Florida installation, which lies just south of the projected path of Idalia.

“The planes are gone. The people are gone. Everything is secured. MacDill is ready,” base officials wrote on a Facebook post one day after MacDill commander Col. Adam Bingham ordered the evacuation of most nonessential military and civilian personnel at the base. The National Hurricane Center on Tuesday issued warnings that Idalia could reach Florida’s Gulf Coast early Wednesday as a major Category 3 storm, boasting sustained winds beyond 111 mph.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday that he had activated about 5,500 National Guard troops to help with storm preparations and to be staged for a quick respond once Idalia passes. The Florida Guard said troops were staging supplies and readying boats for search and rescue missions.

Hurricane Idalia could make landfall in the early morning hours Wednesday in Florida’s rural Taylor County in the northern part of the state’s Big Bend region, the National Hurricane Center projected. It warned of storm impacts across most of Florida’s west coast including “life-threatening storm surge and hurricane conditions” from Englewood, Fla., about 90 miles south of MacDill AFB, to Indian Pass, Fla., about 50 miles southeast of Panama City, Fla.

“By the time we get to the end of tonight, you’re going to see some nasty weather,” DeSantis said during a news briefing. “Be warned about that and do what you need to do right now to keep yourself and your family safe.”

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp also issued a state of emergency, as federal meteorologists expected Idalia to bring heavy rain and tropical storm-strength winds into southeast Georgia late Wednesday.

The Hurricane Center predicted Idalia to drop some 4 to 8 inches of rain across Florida’s panhandle, southeastern Georgia and into eastern South and North Carolina from late Tuesday into Thursday. Areas near the storm’s landfall site in western Florida, including near MacDill AFB, could see up to 12 inches of rain, the center said.

While MacDill, home of U.S. Central Command’s headquarters and U.S. Special Operations Command, chose to evacuate its fleet of KC-135 refueling jets and other aircraft, other Air Force bases in Georgia and Florida elected not to remove aircraft, as of Tuesday afternoon.

Tyndall Air Force Base to MacDill’s northwest near Panama City remained open Tuesday, but officials at the base warned its personnel to be prepared to evacuate if the storm’s projected path moved west. Tyndall, home to the Air Force’s 325th Fighter Wing, suffered a catastrophic direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Michael in October 2018, which caused some $5 billion in damages.

At Moody Air Force Base near Valdosta, Ga., officials said Tuesday that they had not yet decided to evacuate personnel or their aircraft, including A-10 attack jets and search-and-rescue helicopters.

Other Florida and Georgia military installations in Idalia’s projected path took precautions ahead of the storm. Naval Station Mayport near Jacksonville, Fla., sent its ships out to sea Tuesday, according to the Navy. Officials at nearby Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia said they would close those bases Tuesday evening until Thursday to non-mission essential personnel.

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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