Hurricane Ian: Landfall in Florida predicted Wednesday afternoon

At least 2.5 million Florida residents have been ordered to evacuate in anticipation of a powerful storm surge, high winds and flooding.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Florida residents rushed to board up their homes, stow valuable belongings on the upper floors and flee the approaching Hurricane Ian, fearing that the monstrous storm that knocked out power to all of Cuba and May 11, Left millions without power to their homes as the state’s west coast was slammed with catastrophic winds and flooding on Wednesday.

“There’s nothing you can do about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area on Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens to look for a hotel in Orlando’s tourist district. “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it would be best to evacuate.”

Nair and his family were among at least 2.5 million Florida residents who had to be evacuated in anticipation of a powerful storm surge, high winds and heavy rains. Buoyed by the warm offshore waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Ian was gaining strength after plowing through the valuable tobacco-growing region of western Cuba on Tuesday as a Category 3 storm.

The US National Hurricane Center predicted Ian could be a disaster Category 4 hurricane with winds up to 209 km/h before roaring ashore on Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday afternoon. Hurricane-force winds were expected in Florida well before the storm’s eyewall moved inland.

“It’s a big storm, it’s going to kick up a lot of water when it comes in,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 people along the storm’s projected path. He warned at a press conference, “This is the kind of storm surge that’s life-threatening.”

Ian’s forward motion slowed over the Gulf, allowing the hurricane to grow wider and stronger. A hurricane warning covering about 350 kilometers of the state included Fort Myers, as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg, which could get theirs first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday that a storm surge warning had been issued for the Lower Florida Keys. The storm is moving north-northeast about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Naples, Florida. Maximum winds are around 193 km/h (120 mph) with stronger gusts.

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 took no chances. He boarded the windows of his Tampa home with plywood and laid out sandbags to protect himself from flooding. He and his wife packed their car with bottled water, flashlights, cell phone batteries and a camping stove before evacuating.

“We kept all of our valuable possessions upstairs at a friend’s house,” Gonzalez said.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West airports closed. Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando were all closed before the storm.

A couple from England vacationing in Tampa faced weathering the storm at an animal shelter. Glyn and Christine Williams, from London, were ordered to leave their hotel near the beach as evacuations were ordered. Since the airport was closed, they could not get a flight home.

“Unfortunately all the hotels are 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 pretty happy with what we’re doing.”

With Ian’s tropical storm winds spreading 140 miles (225 kilometers) from its center, damage was expected across a wide area of ​​Florida. Flash flooding was a possibility across the state, and parts of the East Coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approached the Atlantic. The storm’s approach also prompted warnings of isolated tornadoes.

In the meantime, there was still uncertainty as to where exactly the landing would take place.

Florida Power and Light warned those who stood in Ian’s way to brace for days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents have been evacuated from several Tampa-area nursing homes, to which hospitals are also transferring some patients.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also experience flooding rain and some coastal flooding Friday through Saturday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pre-emptively declared a state of emergency and ordered 500 National Guard soldiers to stand by to respond if necessary.

Before turning to Florida, Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province early Tuesday, hitting sustained top winds of 125 mph and causing destruction in the island nation’s world-famous tobacco belt.

Local government broadcaster TelePinar reported severe damage to the main hospital in the town of Pinar del Rio, tweeting photos of collapsed ceilings, debris thrown widely and fallen trees. No deaths were reported. Some left the affected area on foot, carrying their children, while buses tried to evacuate others through flooded streets. Others chose to remain in their damaged homes.

“It was horrible,” Yusimi Palacios, a 49-year-old Pinar del Rio resident, said inside her damaged home. “But this is where we live, and I’m just asking the Cuban Revolution to help me with the roof and the mattress.”

Associated press staff 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. Hurricane Ian: Landfall in Florida predicted Wednesday afternoon

Laura Coffey

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