ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Hurricane Ian intensified rapidly off the southwest coast of Florida on Wednesday morning, gaining winds of 155 mph, just shy of the most dangerous Category 5 status. Devastating winds and rain battered the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, with the region from Naples to Sarasota “most at risk” of a devastating storm surge.
US Air Force hurricane chasers confirmed that Ian had gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after battering Cuba, bringing down the country’s power grid and leaving the entire island without power.
The hurricane could push up to 12 feet of seawater ashore in Florida, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said, urging people to evacuate the danger zone if they still can. More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee.
Ian was centered about 65 miles west-southwest of Naples at 7 a.m., whirling towards the coast at 10 mph.
Florida residents rushed before impact to lock up their homes, hide valuables on 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.”
Winds exceeding tropical storm force 39 mph (63 km/h) reached Florida at 3 a.m. and the first hurricane-force winds were recorded at 6 a.m., well before the eyewall broke. is moving inland, the Miami-based center said. Rainfall near the landing area could exceed 18 inches (46 centimeters).
“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. “It’s the kind of storm surge that’s life threatening.”
Ian’s forward motion slowed over the Gulf, allowing the hurricane to widen and strengthen, and its predicted track shifted slightly southward, likely sparing the region from Tampa Bay its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. But with hurricane-force winds expected across much of the peninsula, many cities could sustain significant damage.
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.
Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West closed, as did Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando before 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 either full or closed so it looks like we’re going to be in 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 175 miles from its center, flash flooding was possible across the state. Parts of Florida’s east coast also faced a storm surge threat, and isolated tornadoes brought the storm on long before it made landfall.
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, causing destruction in the island nation’s famous tobacco belt. No deaths have been reported.
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. Some people 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 inside her damaged home. “But here we are alive, and I only ask the Cuban revolution to help me with the roof and the mattress.”