Hurricane Ian grew stronger as it neared the western tip of Cuba on Monday, on a track that hit Florida’s west coast as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday. Ian it was forecast to hit Cuba as a major hurricane and then strengthen to a Category 4 with winds of 140 mph over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Florida along a coast, including the Tampa Bay area.
Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane in a century. Even if Ian doesn’t hit the area directly, the storm’s effects could be felt, Governor Ron DeSantis said.
“You’re still looking at a lot of rain, you’re looking at a lot of wind, you’re looking at a lot of storms and so, yeah, follow that track, but don’t think about it because that eye may or may not be in your area that you’re not going to see impacts. DeSantis said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “You’re going to see significant impacts.”
The governor said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and has mobilized 5,000 National Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.
“Please take this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a news conference Monday about storm preparations in Tampa, where some mandatory evacuations were ordered.
As many as 300,000 people could be evacuated from low-lying areas in the county alone, County Administrator Bonnie Wise said at a news conference. Schools and other locations were opened as shelters.
In Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, officials issued evacuation orders which will come into effect on Monday afternoon. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a briefing earlier that no one will be forced to leave.
“What that means is we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
The evacuation zone is all of Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it, including MacDill Air Force Basethe Tampa International Airport and well-known neighborhoods such as parts of Hyde Park, Davis Islands and Ybor City.
At 2 p.m. EDT Monday, Ian was moving north-northwest at 13 mph about 195 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, according to the National Hurricane Center. Its maximum sustained winds increased to 85 mph. The storm was about 375 miles south of Key West, DeSantis said Monday afternoon.
Up to 10 feet of ocean surge and 10 inches of rain were forecast for the Tampa Bay area, with up to 15 inches in isolated areas. That’s enough water to flood low-lying coastal communities.
Florida residents braced up, lining up for hours in Tampa to pick up sandbags and clear store shelves of bottled water.
The nervous anticipation has led to long lines for gas, full grocery stores and empty shelves, reports CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca in Clearwater, Florida.
“I tried to get water, but it’s not any more, not much right now,” a south Florida woman told CBS station WFOR-TV.
Ian’s impending arrival also prompted NASA to move it Artemis 1 missile from the launch pad and back to the protection of the agency’s vehicle assembly building, likely ending any chance of an unmanned moon launch before November.
“A lot of people in the Florida peninsula and Florida Panhandle are at risk and need to be ready to take action quickly,” said Rick Knabb, hurricane expert at The Weather Channel, “and the slow motion we expect from Ian means that we could to have wind, storm, and floods caused by rain.’
A hurricane watch was issued for the central west coast of Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough County suspended classes until Thursday. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles from its center, watches were issued Monday from the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of Florida and urged residents to prepare for the storm, which will batter large areas of the state with heavy rainfall, strong winds and rising seas.
“We’re going to continue to monitor the path of this storm. But it’s really important to emphasize the degree of uncertainty that still exists,” DeSantis said at a news conference Sunday, warning that “even if you don’t necessarily have the eye of its path right storm, there will be fairly broad impacts across the state.”
Flooding and urban flooding is possible in the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula through midweek, and then heavy rainfall was possible in northern Florida, the Florida Panhandle and the southeastern United States later this week.
The hurricane center advised Florida residents to have hurricane plans in place and monitor the storm’s progress for updates.
President Biden also declared a state of 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 planned Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.
In Cuba, authorities suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations on Monday as Ian approached the island’s westernmost provinces. Cuba also shut down its rail system in anticipation of the worst weather conditions.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, as well as life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” National Hurricane Center Senior Specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.
The hurricane center said Ian is expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands on Monday and the storm will reach western Cuba late Monday or early Tuesday, hitting near the country’s most famous tobacco fields.
The center of the hurricane was passing the west of the Cayman Islands, where Prime Minister Wayne Panton said the government and opposition were working together to keep people as safe as possible. No major damage was reported there Monday, and residents took to the streets again as the rain stopped and winds died down.