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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Hurricane Ian, now a fierce Cat 3, track shifts south as rains sweep Florida

By Alex Harris and Michelle Marchante Miami Herald

MIAMI – Hurricane Ian’s projected path shifted slightly Tuesday, on a track that would push the powerful storm to an earlier potential landfall south of the Tampa Bay area – a small but significant change for a Gulf Coast vulnerable to storm surge.

If the track holds – and forecasts stress that it may still change – it could reduce the flooding threat to Tampa Bay but raise it for coastal communities to the south like Sarasota and Cape Coral. Two days out from landfall, Florida was already feeling Ian’s first gusty, rainy bands.

In its 11 a.m. Tuesday forecast, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Ian is expected to bring historic levels of storm surge to the Sarasota area. That area now faces higher predicted storm surge levels than Tampa Bay – potentially up to 12 feet above dry land. That’s in addition to up to 24 inches of rain for the central west Florida region.

The latest forecast also bumped up landfall to Tuesday evening, bringing a tropical storm warning to all of southeast Florida, including coastal Miami-Dade and Broward. South Florida was already seeing street flooding Tuesday morning, and officials urged residents of the Keys to take shelter as tornado warnings popped up.

Florida’s entire west coast could see devastating storm surge and intense rain for several days as the storm slows to a crawl along the coast.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuations have been called for about half a million people on Florida’s west coast, schools have closed in 16 counties and all of Florida remains under a federally declared state of emergency.

Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a Tuesday morning broadcast that Floridians are “starting to run out of time” to prepare for Ian’s arrival.

“If you’re ordered to go you really should do so,” he said. “It’s really important that people start taking this seriously.”

As of the NHC’s 11 a.m. update, Hurricane Ian was about 305 miles south-southwest of Sarasota and about 125 miles south-southwest of the Dry Tortugas. It was still a Category 3 storm with 115 mph maximum sustained winds and a wind field that stretched 140 miles from its center, a larger wind field than earlier Tuesday. It was heading north at 10 mph, a slowdown from earlier.

Ian’s center made landfall just southwest of La Coloma in the Pinar Del Rio Province of Cuba as a Cat 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The storm is expected to spend only a few hours over western Cuba and should emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico sometime Tuesday, where conditions are ripe for it to strengthen into a Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph winds. Forecasters expect it will then be battered by vertical wind shear and drier mid-level air that will likely lead to it weakening back into a Cat 3 by the time it reaches Florida’s west coast early Thursday morning.

Ian is now forecast to be a Cat 3 hurricane by the time it’s offshore of Sarasota, with a potential landfall near Venice late Wednesday night.

At that point, the hurricane center expects Ian’s forward speed to slow to 5 mph, prolonging the heavy rains and storm surge and overall giving the storm much more time to soak Florida as it inches inland.

Because of that major slowdown, Florida is expected to see a lot of rain this week. South Florida and the Keys could see four to six inches, while the Tampa Bay area could see more than a foot of rain, with up to two feet in some spots.

Rhome, acting director of the hurricane center, warned that Ian’s rains will arrive long before the winds will, which could lead to significant flooding risk long before Hurricane Ian’s center nears the coast.

“A typical summertime thunderstorm here in Florida would put down 1 inch. Multiple that by 10 or 15,” he said.

Key West and Florida’s west coast are expected to start feeling tropical storm level winds Tuesday evening, and hurricane-force winds will hit the Cape Coral to Tampa area beginning Wednesday afternoon.

Nearly the entire state – except Southeast Florida and parts of the Panhandle – could see storm surge greater than two feet above dry land. Tampa Bay is the worst, with predictions for five to 10 feet. For the east coast, this coincides with the annual highest tides of the year, king tides. It’s already accounted for in the NHC forecast, but the additional rainfall could lead to more intense flooding than usual for southeast Florida.

A hurricane warning was extended south along Florida’s west coast to Bonita Beach. A tropical storm warning was issued Tuesday morning for the Middle Florida Keys from the Channel 5 Bridge west to the Seven Mile Bridge, as well as for Florida’s west coast from the Anclote River north to the Suwannee River and for Florida’s east coast from the Jupiter Inlet to the Volusia/Brevard County line, including Lake Okeechobee. A tropical storm watch was issued for Florida’s southeast coast from Deerfield Beach north to the Jupiter Inlet.