(This Aug. 31 story has been refiled to correct the spelling of DeSantis name in paragraphs 9, 22 and Deanne Criswell in paragraph 19)
By Julio-Cesar Chavez, Marco Bello and Brendan O'Brien
HORSESHOE BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Idalia drenched the Carolinas with heavy rain before departing the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on Thursday, while officials in Florida, where the tempest made landfall as a major hurricane a day earlier, stepped up recovery and damage-appraisal efforts.
Nearly 36 hours after plowing ashore from the Gulf of Mexico at Keaton Beach in Florida's Big Bend region, packing Category 3 winds of nearly 125 miles per hour (201 kph), Idalia weakened from a tropical storm to a post-tropical cyclone and drifted out into the Atlantic.
At the height of its fury on Wednesday, Idalia ravaged a wide swath of low-lying and largely rural Gulf Coast landscape and forced emergency teams, some in boats, to rescue dozens of residents who became trapped by floodwaters.
The storm brought fierce winds and drove surging seawater miles inland, strewing the area with fallen trees, power lines and debris. Many buildings were in shambles, and power outages were widespread.
The storm ranked as the most powerful hurricane in more than a century to strike the Big Bend region, a sparsely populated area laced with marshland, rivers and springs where the state's northern Gulf Coast panhandle curves into the western side of the Florida Peninsula.
The damage and loss of life were less than many had feared, with authorities confirming three traffic-related fatalities linked to the storm in Florida and another in southeastern Georgia.
Idalia's storm surge - considered the greatest hazard posed by major hurricanes - appeared to have caused no deaths.
Even as Idalia headed out to the Atlantic, the back end of the storm system was producing downpours that were forecast to dump as much as 10 inches (25 cm) of rain in some spots along the coastline of North and South Carolina, the National Weather Service said.
Forecasters had warned of possible life-threatening flash floods in the Carolinas. But local media reports at day's end said both states had mostly been spared.
Flooding damaged about 40 businesses in the town of Whiteville, North Carolina, marking that state's most serious brush with Idalia, according to Raleigh-based ABC News affiliate WTVD-TV.
South Carolina's emergency management center was winding down its operations by afternoon, said Charleston-based station WCSC-TV.
“We were very fortunate this time,” state emergency management chief Kim Stenos was quoted as saying.
'THE HOUSE IS STILL THERE'
Much of Florida's Big Bend coast was much less fortunate.
Horseshoe Beach, a community about 30 miles south of landfall, was among those that bore the brunt of Idalia's impact. Video footage showed scattered remnants of trailer homes sheared from bare concrete foundations. Other trailer homes had toppled and slid into lagoons, and boat docks were reduced to piles of splintered lumber.
John "Sparky" Abrade, a 77-year-old retiree who lives in the community, said he nevertheless felt relieved when he saw the damage to his home, even though the windows were blown out and household items scattered about.
"I'm feeling great. The house is still here," he said.
Local, state and federal authorities said they would assess the full extent of damage in the days ahead. Insured property losses in Florida were projected to run to $9.36 billion, according to investment bank UBS.
"We've seen a lot of heart-breaking damage," Governor Ron DeSantis said during an afternoon news briefing after touring three communities near where the storm made landfall.
President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for several hard-hit Florida counties, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Deanne Criswell said after touring the area with DeSantis. Biden said he plans to visit some of the storm-battered areas on Saturday.
Despite heavy damage to homes in many coastal communities, Idalia proved far less destructive, or lethal, than Hurricane Ian, a Category 5 storm that struck Florida last September, killing 150 people and causing $112 billion in property losses.
The last hurricane documented making landfall on the Big Bend coast with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph was an unnamed storm that struck Cedar Keys in September 1896, devastating the area.
DeSantis credited the accuracy of Idalia forecasts tracking its path with helping authorities fine-tune evacuation plans and thus save lives.
"People, particularly in this area - who were in the way of a potential significant storm surge - they did take the proper precautions," he said.
Across the Southeast, electricity outages from fallen trees, utility poles and power lines were widespread. In all, more than 175,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas on Thursday, according to Poweroutage.us.
Florida officials said crews would restore most of the state's electricity within 48 hours.
For some, losses from the storm cut deep.
In Horseshoe Beach, Austin "Buddy" Daniel Ellison, 39, and his father Ronald Daniel Ellison, plodded through the ruins of Ed's Baitshop, the family's business. Nearby, their home was badly damaged.
"I ain't never seen one like this, my Dad never seen one like this," Buddy Ellison said.
The family was grateful that timely evacuation meant no one was hurt. But the Ellisons said they lacked insurance and will have to leave the area where their family has deep roots.
"This storm is forcing us out of here," Ronald Ellison said. "As I see it now, it's over."
(Reporting by Maria Alejandra Cardona in Steinhatchee, Florida, and Marco Bello in Cedar Key, Florida; Additional reporting by Rich McKay and Brendan O'Brien; Writing by Brendan O'Brien and Steve Gorman; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Cynthia Osterman and Miral Fahmy)