Hurricane Ian, which caused widespread damage and flooding while crossing western Cuba, is expected to approach the southwest coast of Florida amid expectations it would strengthen into a catastrophic Category 4 storm, authorities warned.
Ian slammed into Cuba earlier Tuesday, a Category 3 monster pounding the island with 125 mph winds. High winds and storm surge are still expected farther north into the Tampa Bay region, state Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said.
Hundreds of thousands of Floridians faced mandatory evacuation orders as the National Hurricane Center expanded its hurricane warning along more than 150 miles of the state’s Gulf Coast. Power outages can be expected statewide, Florida Power & Light warned.
As of Tuesday night, power outages were already occurring in the Florida Keys and South Florida, according to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Along with the howling winds, parts of Central Florida could see 12 to 16 inches of rain, and 2 feet is possible in isolated areas, the hurricane center said. DeSantis said there was potential for “historic” storm surge and flooding.
“In some areas, there will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “Because of the size of the storm, it’s kicking up a lot of surge. The Gulf is going to be very angry as this comes in.”
The Florida Keys saw hurricane-force winds and heavy rain late Tuesday as Ian advanced toward the state, DeSantis said during a news conference Tuesday night. Tornadoes are likely to occur overnight and the hurricane is expected to make landfall in southwest Florida, likely as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds Wednesday afternoon.
Conditions are expected to deteriorate across central and south Florida Tuesday night, according to the National Hurricane Center. A storm surge warning remains in effect along the state’s west coast with the highest risk in the Naples to Sarasota region.
DeSantis warned that flooding was likely across much of west Florida. He also raised the possibility that after landfall, a weakening Ian would continue to march across Central Florida before exiting the state Friday near Volusia County on the Atlantic coast.
“This is a lot of nasty weather that we’re in store for over the next few days,” DeSantis said.
WHAT IS STORM SURGE? Explaining a hurricane’s deadliest and most destructive threat
►8,000 customers were without power in southeastern Florida and 30,000 utility workers are standing by to help respond to power outages, DeSantis said.
►In preparation for flooding and damages, 176 disaster shelters have opened and more shelters are expected to open, according to DeSantis.
►DeSantis’ authorization, a total of 5,000 Florida Guardsmen are being activated to State Active Duty and pre-positioned at armories across the state for Ian response operations. 2,000 Guardsmen from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina are also being activated to assist.
►Orlando International Airport will shut down Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Over 1,200 flights slated for Tuesday and Wednesday have been canceled due to the anticipated hurricane, according to flight-tracking site Flightaware.com.
►The hurricane center expanded its hurricane warning to include Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River. Fort Myers is in the hurricane zone, and Tampa and St. Petersburg could still get a direct hit by a major hurricane for the first time in a century.
Tampa was no longer the most likely place for landfall, but the local forecast still calls for massive amounts of rain. AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said Tampa will still get a storm surge, but nothing like anticipated in earlier forecasts. And “it’s very possible this thing could kind of wobble” further north than what computer models are suggesting.
The Tampa area sits at sea level, which makes it especially vulnerable to storm surge, weather service meteorologist Christianne Pearce said.
“Any amount of storm surge could be significant in those areas, especially with as much it’s been built up, and storm surge and any kind of inland flooding could be significant,” Pearce said.
FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell, speaking at a White House briefing, said the storm will make landfall somewhere between Tampa and Fort Myers. The entire state will be affected, and “everyone needs to stay focused,” she said. By the time Ian reaches Florida, the storm will slow to about 5 mph, which means storm surge is the biggest concern, she said.
“This is significant because what his means is that Floridians are going to experience the impacts of this storm for a very long time,” she said.
Florida’s theme parks are hurriedly preparing for its arrival. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, just miles from where the hurricane was previously expected to make landfall, was the first park to shutter ahead of the storm. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND Florida will follow suit on Wednesday.
“Everything revolves around the safety of our guests and team members,” Universal Orlando Resort said in a statement to USA TODAY.
Guthrie said those looking to leave the storm’s path may not have to go far.
“Many people in the Southwest Florida area, your best bet is going to be evacuate across the state,” Guthrie said. “Just go straight across the state to Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach.”
DeSantis said that for some evacuees, moving to a nearby building on higher ground might be sufficient.
“This is not necessarily saying you have to evacuate to another state,” DeSantis said. “When we say evacuate, we don’t mean keep traveling until you have no chance of getting rained on.”
Andrew and Pam Trapani were resigned to riding out Hurricane Ian in their Siesta Key home Tuesday. They thought about leaving as the forecast worsened, but by the time the Trapanis considered evacuating, they couldn’t find a hotel. They decided their house – built in 2017 at 17 feet of elevation with hurricane-resistant windows and a whole-house generator – was safe enough. It sits on 55 pilings driven 35 feet into the ground and has a bottom floor designed for floodwater to wash through.
Andrew Trapani said it always felt as if the region was protected from big storms. But he isn’t overconfident.
“I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ll probably have a few Scotches the next few days,” he said.
Nick Ticich and his family have owned the T-Shirt Hut in Sanibel, about 50 miles south of Venice, since the 1950s. Over the past 50 years, the family has battled a handful of hurricanes and won nearly every time. Yet after his family almost lost the store when Hurricane Charley ripped through the tiny town in 2004, he said he still feels the need to board up for each oncoming disaster.
“It could come at us,” Ticich said as he boarded up his shop. “We can lose the building. We can lose everything.”
Ian made landfall on Cuba’s western tip, where officials set up shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and worked to protect crops in Cuba’s tobacco-growing region.
“Significant wind and storm surge impacts (are) occurring over Cuba,” said Daniel Brown, senior hurricane specialist and the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Cuba’s Electric Union said in a statement that work was underway to gradually restore service to the country’s 11 million people during the night. Power was initially knocked out to about 1 million people in Cuba’s western provinces, but later the entire grid collapsed.
The storm was forecast to roll off Cuba and strengthen to a Category 4 storm over warm Gulf of Mexico waters. The storm’s winds could reach 140 mph before reaching Florida as soon as Wednesday.
Ian will slow over the Gulf, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said.
Ian was forecast to emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday and Wednesday night. The storm is predicted to slow during this period, the National Hurricane Center warned in an advisory.
“This would likely prolong the storm surge, wind and rainfall impacts along the affected portions of the west coast of Florida,” the advisory says.
RAPID INTENSIFICATION:What does that mean?
LANDFALL IN CUBA:Hurricane Ian grows stronger
Heavy rainfall is expected to affect the Southeast on Friday and Saturday, the weather service said. “Widespread, considerable” flash and urban flooding are expected mid- to late week across central and northern Florida, southern Georgia and coastal South Carolina. Significant, prolonged river flooding is expected across central to northern Florida.
Limited flash and river flooding is expected over portions of the Southeast into the mid-Atlantic mid- to late week.
WHAT IS STORM SURGE?:It’s often a hurricane’s deadliest and most destructive threat
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has issued a statewide state of emergency, said 5,000 Florida National Guard members were being called into duty, and 2,000 more are being sent to Florida from nearby states. The state is working to load 360 trailers with more than 2 million meals and more than 1 million gallons of water to prepare for distribution. Urban Search and Rescue Teams are ready to mobilize where needed, DeSantis said.
“There is going to be an interruption of power, so just plan on that,” DeSantis said. “The impacts are going to be far and wide.”
HURRICANE CATEGORIES EXPLAINED:Breaking down the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind speed scale
“Rapid intensification” is a process in which a storm undergoes accelerated growth: The phenomenon is typically defined to be a tropical cyclone (whether a tropical storm or hurricane) intensifying by at least 35 mph within 24 hours. Ian is predicted to fit this definition. The storm’s winds were forecast to approach 140 mph by late Tuesday.
Rapid intensification occurs when a tropical storm or hurricane encounters an “extremely conducive environment,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said. That typically includes very warm water, low vertical wind shear and high levels of midlevel moisture. Out of the nine hurricanes with winds of 150 mph or greater that struck the U.S. mainland over 103 years, all but one saw the explosion of force and power known as rapid intensification.
If the storm struck as a Category 4 hurricane, it could cause “catastrophic” damage, and power outages could last weeks or months, according to the National Weather Service’s description of storms that strong. Areas can be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the weather service says.
“Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state,” DeSantis warned.
Contributing: Ashley Williams; Celina Tebor, Doyle Rice, and Eve Chen, USA TODAY; Zac Anderson and Steven Walker, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Samantha Neely of Fort Myers News-Press; John Kennedy, Hannah Morse, and Sergio Bustos, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press