Tropical Storm Ian was strengthening in the eastern Caribbean Saturday afternoon, on its way to becoming what forecasters say could be a powerful Category 3 hurricane as it near Cuba, then threaten Florida early next week.
Most of Florida remains in the cone — but a slight shift west took much of the Keys and a swath of metro Miami-Dade and Broward counties out, at least for the moment. A wiggle back to the east, could easily bring the area back in coming days and the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center stressed there is still uncertainty in the path of Ian beyond 72 hours.
As of 2 pm Saturday, the National Hurricane Center called for a landfall sometime Wednesday north of Tampa, reflecting another slight nudge west in the track. No matter where Ian heads, heavy winds and rain could be felt across the state throughout the week.
Jamie Rhone, acting director of the NHC, warned Floridians not to get fixed on the little changes in the track, which can just as easily move right back.
“You may think because you’re out of the cone, you’re out of the woods, and that’s not correct,” he said in a morning broadcast. “You here in the South Florida peninsula have to maintain your guard.”
Saturday afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded his state of emergency declaration to the entire state, as the still-uncertain projected landfall track continues to wiggle east and west.
The hurricane center, and officials in Miami-Dade and Monroe County, urged residents to finish hurricane preparations by Monday evening. The Keys will decide Saturday afternoon whether to call for evacuations.
READ MORE: Florida is in the storm cone. What it means for you and what you should be doing
The latest on Ian
Ian grew more powerful overnight and was packing 45 mph maximum sustained winds by the 2 pm update. It was about 270 miles south-southeast of Kingston, Jamaica, which was under a tropical storm watch, and about 505 miles southeast of Grand Cayman, which was under a hurricane warning. It was zipping along west-southwest at 16 mph, a slightly faster pace than earlier in the day.
Forecasters said the wind shear leftover from Hurricane Fiona and other unfavorable conditions was expected to melt away on Saturday and Sunday, allowing Ian to strengthen further.
On Sunday, Ian is projected to hit a patch of superheated ocean water that powers it into a hurricane. The NHC said it could even rapidly intensify, which is when a storm gains at least 30 mph of sustained winds in a 24-hour period.
It’s currently projected to approach Cuba as a Category 2 hurricane with 110 mph winds, but forecasters warned it could well be a Category 3 at that point.
READ NEXT: Your 2022 survival guide to tropical storms, hurricanes in Miami, Broward and the Keys
Where in Florida?
Ian’s approach to Florida’s west coast early next week is not as clear. The hurricane center said Saturday that the spread of potential paths spit out by computer models covered a range of nearly 180 miles, and the 11 am update included another nudge of the track to the west.
“Beyond 72 h, there is still a large amount of cross-track spread in the guidance as Ian emerges into the eastern Gulf of Mexico and approaches Florida,” the 11 am discussion read. “Further adjustments to the track forecast may be needed given the increased uncertainty in the day 3-5 period.”
That’s partially due to how disorganized Ian remains, even after strengthening to tropical storm status. Models have a hard time predicting future paths without a clearly defined center, and Ian’s is still taking shape.
Michael Lowry, WPLG’s meteorologist, wrote in his newsletter that the storm’s center on Saturday morning was a little south of where previous models expected it to be, which could have consequences for a Florida landfall later next week.
“While we anticipated a brief turn westward, the southwesterly jog may indicate a competition ongoing between Ian’s mid-level center being blown southwestward by persistent wind shear and its formative low-level circulation chasing it,” he wrote. “The uneven distribution of thunderstorm activity south of the center could work to tug the system farther south and west in the short term.”
One important factor in where exactly the storm goes is the ridge of air over the Northeast US Models differ on when exactly it will begin to push south, and where it will steer Ian depends on when the storm interacts with that low pressure.
To help gather more information about that ridge, the National Weather Service in Aberdeen, South Dakota tweeted that dozens of NWS offices across the US are launching extra weather balloons, starting Saturday.
“Small changes in the track can make a BIG difference in impacts across South Florida,” the Miami NWS office warned.
The ‘cone of uncertainty’ is getting smaller — but it still matters if you’re outside it
Wind and rain predictions
South Florida and the Keys could see heavy rains beginning as early as Monday, along with some flooding. Current projections call for about 4 to 6 inches of rain across the Florida peninsula, according to the NWS Miami office Saturday morning outlook.
The NHC predicts that Jamaica and the Cayman Islands could see four to eight inches of rain, while western to central Cuba is expecting more like six to 10 inches.
NHC was also monitoring three other storms and a tropical wave in the central Atlantic with a low chance of formation this week. Tropical Storms Hermine was no threat to land, and Tropical Storm Gaston was pulling away from the Azores Saturday morning. Post-tropical Cyclone Fiona was lashing Nova Scotia and Newfoundland with record-breaking winds.