ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricane Ian, a Category 2 Hurricane as of Monday afternoon, was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba, on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday.
Ian was forecast to hit Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 miles (225 kilometers) over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida along a stretch of coast including the Tampa Bay area.
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While hurricane conditions may arise as early as Wednesday for Florida, tropical storm conditions will be possible as early as Tuesday night. Ian is expected to produce 6 to 12 inches of rainfall in Central West Florida, with local maxima of up to 20 inches.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a Monday news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations Monday as Ian approached the island’s westernmost provinces. Cuba also was shutting down its train system ahead of the worst weather.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane force winds, also life threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” US National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press early Monday.
At 5 pm EDT on Monday, Ian was moving north-northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), about 120 miles west-northwest of Grand Cayman, with sustained top winds increasing to 85 mph (135 kph).
As the hurricane approached the Cayman Islands, members of the government and opposition were working together “to ensure that our people are made as safe as possible — the supplies, plywood, in some cases sandbags, are distributed so that they can safely weather this storm,” Premier Wayne Panton said in a video posted Sunday. “We must prepare for the worst and absolutely pray and hope for the best.”
“Ian is not expected to spend much time over western Cuba, and additional strengthening is likely over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday,” the center said. “Ian is likely to have an expanding wind field and will be slowing down by that time, which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida.”
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A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in isolated areas. That’s enough water to flood low-lying coastal communities.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said at a news conference Monday on preparations.
Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters. “We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
Florida residents were getting ready, lining up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and clearing store shelves of bottled water. At an Ace hardware store in Titusville, on the state’s Atlantic coast, generators, gas cans, chain saws and weather radios were in demand, owner Bill Pastermack said.
A hurricane watch was issued for Florida’s central western coast including the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough County suspended classes through Thursday to prepare schools to serve as shelters for evacuees. Additional watches for more northern areas along the peninsula’s west coast may be issued, Brown said.
Govt. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency, and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state’s Gulf coast.
“You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said. “That’s going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flood events. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts,” he said at a news conference in Tallahassee.
DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida because of the storm.
Playing it safe, NASA began slowly rolling its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.
Flash and urban flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and then heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that while no one will be forced to leave, “mandatory” evacuation orders are expected to begin Tuesday.
“What it means is, we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t do it, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
The evacuation zone is all along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it, encompassing MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa International Airport and well-known neighborhoods such as parts of Hyde Park, Davis Islands and Ybor City.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders. “This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have hurricane plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.
“The biggest problem is that people tend to wait until the last minute,” Pastermack said between customers. “I’m always the last person to get prepared, which is kind of ironic.”
Hurricane season runs until Dec. 1.
Check back for updates.
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