ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Forecasters say Hurricane Ian has upgraded to an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm as it approaches Florida’s west coast.
La. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 5 a.m. Wednesday that Ian now had sustained winds of 140 mph (220 kph) and was centered about 75 miles (125 kilometers) east. west-southwest of Naples, Florida. He reported that Ian was moving north at a forward speed of 10 mph (17 km/h).
The major hurricane triggered potentially dangerous storm surge warnings along the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, from Bonita Beach to the Tampa Bay area.
Winds and rain began to intensify, a day after Ian hit the western tip of Cuba, knocking out the power grid and leaving the entire island without power.
Florida residents rushed to lock up their homes, stash their prized possessions on the upper floors, and flee.
“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area on Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens in search of a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando. “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it best to evacuate.”
Nair and his family were among at least 2.5 million Florida residents who were ordered to evacuate in anticipation of powerful storm surge, high winds and torrential rain. The hurricane center predicted Ian would roar across Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday afternoon.
Winds exceeding tropical storm force 39 mph (63 km/h) reached Florida at 3 a.m. and hurricane-force winds were expected in Florida long before the eyewall moved inland. land, the Miami-based center said.
“It’s a big storm, it’s going to kick up a lot of water when it comes in,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 in the storm’s forecast path. He warned at a press conference: “This is the kind of storm surge that is life threatening.”
Ian’s forward motion slowed over the Gulf, allowing the hurricane to widen and strengthen. A hurricane warning covering about 220 miles (350 kilometers) of the state included Fort Myers as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg, which could be hit directly by a major hurricane for the first time since 1921..
Forecasters said the storm surge could reach 12 feet (3.6 meters) if it peaks at high tide. Rainfall near the landing area could exceed 18 inches (46 centimeters).
Gil Gonzalez was taking no risks. He covered the windows of his Tampa home with plywood and laid down sandbags to guard against any flooding. He and his wife packed their car with bottled water, flashlights, batteries for their cell phones and a camping stove before evacuating.
“All the most valuable possessions, we put them upstairs in a friend’s house,” Gonzalez said.
Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West airports have closed. Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando all closed ahead of the storm.
A couple from England vacationing in Tampa found themselves battling the storm at a shelter. Glyn and Christine Williams from London were ordered to leave their hotel near the beach when evacuations were ordered. Because the airport closed, they couldn’t catch a flight home.
“Unfortunately all the hotels are full or closed so it looks like we’re going to be at one of the shelters,” Christine Williams said.
Her husband insisted that everything would be fine. “You know, you have to go with the flow,” Glyn Williams said. “So we’re very happy to do what we do.”
The precise location of the landfall was still uncertain, but with tropical storm-force winds from Ian extending 280 kilometers from its center, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida. Flash flooding was possible across the state, and parts of its east coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approached the Atlantic Ocean. Warnings were also issued for isolated tornadoes.
Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to prepare for days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents were evacuated from several Tampa-area nursing homes, where hospitals were also moving some patients.
Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also see torrential rains and some coastal surge on Saturday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency, ordering 500 National Guard troops to stand by as needed.
Before heading to Florida, Ian hit Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province with sustained winds of 125mph (205kph) and caused destruction in the island nation’s famous tobacco belt.
Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage to the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Rio, tweeting pictures of collapsed ceilings, widely thrown debris and toppled trees. No deaths have been reported. Some left the disaster area on foot, carrying their children, while buses tried to evacuate others through waterlogged streets. Others chose to stay in their damaged homes.
“It was horrible,” said Yusimi Palacios, a resident of Pinar del Rio in her damaged home. “But here we are alive, and I only ask the Cuban revolution to help me with the roof and the mattress.”
Associated Press contributors include Christina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York.