New York Times
As Hurricane Ian gathered strength and headed north toward Cuba and the United States, authorities in Florida urged residents on Monday to begin evacuating some low-lying areas and to prepare for dangerous storm surges, flooding and damage in the coming days.
As it nears Cuba, Ian is expected to become a major hurricane – meaning Category 3 or stronger, with winds of at least 111 mph – as soon as Monday night, forecasters said. Its winds Monday evening had increased to 100 mph, making it a Category 2 hurricane.
By Monday night, Ian was expected to move near or over western Cuba, where a hurricane warning was in place for Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. More than 27,000 people in Pinar del Rio had been evacuated, the Cuban news media reported.
The National Hurricane Center warned of “significant wind and storm surge impacts” overnight in western Cuba, with mudslides possible.
On Tuesday, Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, crawl west of the Florida Keys later Tuesday and then approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch for parts of the west coast of Florida, signaling that hurricane conditions are possible. And it issued a hurricane warning for Tampa Bay, meaning hurricane conditions are expected within 24 to 36 hours.
Florida Power and Light said that it had mobilized 13,000 workers in anticipation of “widespread outages stretching over multiple days.”
Officials warned residents to prepare for downed power lines, flooded streets and damaged property.
“I can’t stress enough that when we ask you to evacuate, you need to evacuate,” Ken Welch, the mayor of St. Petersburg, said at a news conference with Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and other officials. “First responders will not be able to rescue you after winds reach a certain level and you’ll have to fend for yourselves.”
HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital in St. Petersburg, which is close to coastal waters, said in a statement that it had evacuated its patients to other hospitals Monday afternoon.
While much of the concern was focused on Florida’s west coast, from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region, DeSantis warned that the east coast of Florida could also experience flooding and other effects from the 500-mile-wide storm. Schools and colleges across the state began to cancel classes for the week.
“Don’t think because that eye may or may not be in your area that you’re not going to see impacts,” DeSantis said. “You’re going to see significant impacts.”
Showers and thunderstorms at the outskirts of the hurricane had already started to move through the Florida Keys on Monday, according to the weather service, which warned that conditions would deteriorate.
Traffic was building up along Florida highways as people evacuated, DeSantis said. One official warned that the approximately 110-mile drive from Pinellas County – which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater – to Orlando could take from four to even 10 hours, as more residents drive to safer areas.
The state suspended tolls in the west and cautioned residents to anticipate possible fuel disruptions and power failures. But there was no need to “panic-buy” fuel and water, DeSantis said. The governor, who has declared a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, also emphasized that there was some uncertainty surrounding the storm’s path.
At 8 p.m. Monday, Ian was about 130 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, and moving north-northwest at 13 mph, the hurricane center said.
The Cayman Islands, south of Cuba, said that it expected to face rain, wind, rough seas and heavy swells for the next 24 hours but that it had not experienced major damage.
“We have been given the all clear from Hurricane Ian,” Martyn Roper, the governor of the Cayman Islands, said in a statement. “Fortunately, the impact across all three Islands has not been as bad as expected, but it is always right to over prepare.”
The Florida Keys could get 4 to 6 inches of rain, with some areas receiving up to 8 inches through Tuesday evening, the hurricane center said, adding that flash and urban flooding could occur across the Keys and the Florida peninsula. Flash flooding and mudslides were also possible in Jamaica and Cuba.
In preparation for the storm, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for 24 Florida counties that will unlock direct federal assistance.
Among the Florida counties that were beginning to issue evacuation orders were Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, Pinellas County, and Manatee County, south of Tampa. MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa also issued a mandatory evacuation order for “non-mission essential individuals,” including uniformed service members.
Forecasters tracking the hurricane expect high storm surge in and around Tampa Bay. They warned that sturdy buildings could be damaged, and that mobile homes could be destroyed. Large debris could also block roads and power outages could disrupt communication.
“Prepare for life-threatening wind having possible devastating impacts across west central and southwest Florida,” the weather service said.
Hillsborough County closed schools until Thursday and began opening storm shelters in some schools. Pasco County said its schools and offices would close Tuesday and Wednesday. Sarasota County; Lake County, northwest of Orlando; and Marion County, in North Central Florida, also announced school closings.
Some colleges were also moving to evacuate students. Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach, on the east coast of the state, issued a mandatory campus evacuation order starting Monday. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg also ordered people to prepare to leave campus.
After several postponements, NASA announced Monday that it would delay the launch of the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center.
Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said that the Port of Tampa would shut down, while east coast ports were expected to remain open. He said that as of Sunday afternoon the division had 360 trailers loaded with meals and water ready to distribute to residents.
Some animal shelters and rescues in Florida, asked residents and shelters that were not in evacuation zones to take in some of their dogs.
The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, had a relatively quiet start, with only three named storms before Sept. 1 and none during August, the first time that had happened since 1997. Storm activity picked up in early September with Danielle and Earl, which formed within a day of each other. Ian is the ninth named storm of the season.
In early August, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an updated forecast for the rest of the season, which still called for an above-normal level of activity. In it, they predicted that the season – which runs through Nov. 30 – could see 14 to 20 named storms, with six to 10 turning into hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 74 mph.
The links between hurricanes and climate change have become clearer with each passing year. Data shows that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades. A warming planet can expect stronger hurricanes over time and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms, though the overall number of storms could drop because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.
Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of increased water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; scientists have suggested storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surge – the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.
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