Hurricane Idalia left communities digging out after causing widespread flooding and destruction

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CEDAR KEY, Fla. — It was the hottest rental cottage at the Faraway Inn because it was right on the Gulf of Mexico and the sunsets were spectacular.

But when the owner returned to her little paradise on Cedar Key on Thursday, the cottage was gone.

Faraway Inn in Cedar Key, Fla., following the passage of Hurricane Idalia.

“This is one of our cottages, Cottage 1, one of the most popular ones because it was closer to the water and people could see the water,” Amy Firestine told NBC News, pointing at a handful of bricks scattered near the shoreline. “It is no longer there.”

“We didn’t expect damage like this,” Firestine said.

Firestine and hundreds of other Cedar Key residents were forced to evacuate when Hurricane Idalia barreled ashore Wednesday morning in the sparsely populated Big Bend region of the Sunshine State, before continuing on through southern Georgia and the Carolinas.

With now Idalia in the Atlantic Ocean, residents across those states spent Thursday picking up the pieces, but Florida bore the brunt of the damage.

The extent of Idalia’s destruction was clearly visible in the communities that felt the storm’s wrath first, like the Florida fishing village of Steinhatchee, which is about 200 miles north of Tampa.

There, just about every building in town appeared to have suffered some damage and there were several empty lots where homes once stood.

Richard Carmichael, who is 79 and has lived in Steinhatchee his entire life, fled inland and stayed with friends until the storm passed. When he returned, there was 5 feet of water in his house and all his furniture was destroyed.

A brown line shows high the water rose in Richard Carmichael's house in Steinhatchee, Fla.

“I thought I was prepared, but I didn’t put the stuff up high enough,” Carmichael said, surveying the wreckage. “What I have to do is take all this stuff and dump it.”

Still, Carmichael was counting his blessings and making plans to move back in.

“I’m going to leave this empty down here so I won’t have to go through this again,” he said. “I’m going to live on the second floor.”

Richard Carmichael's house in Steinhatchee, Fla.

Jessup Evans, 18, who was born and raised in Steinhatchee, was more fortunate, returning home Thursday to a home that appeared to have suffered just minimal damage. The same could not be said for many of his neighbors.

“It’s sad, just very sad,” Evans said before he set off to help them clean up what was left of their homes.

After Idalia barreled through Florida, it continued in a northeasterly direction through southern Georgia and the Carolinas before heading out into the Atlantic. So far, three deaths have been attributed to the storm — two in Florida and one in Georgia, officials have said.

By the time Idalia reached Charleston, South Carolina, it had weakened to a post-tropical cyclone. But it was still packing 40 mph winds when it barged into the historic city around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, right around high tide.

On Thursday morning, a major cleanup was underway in Charleston after Idalia churned up an epic storm surge — with high tide cresting at over 9 feet — that sent water cascading over the Battery seawall.

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