Hurricane Ian was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba on Monday, on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday.was forecast to hit Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida along a stretch of 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.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a Monday news conference on storm preparations in Tampa, where some mandatory evacuations were ordered.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in the county alone, County Administrator Bonnie Wise said at a news conference. Schools and other locations were being opened as shelters.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that while no one will be forced to leave, mandatory evacuation orders are expected to begin Tuesday.
“What it means is, we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t do it, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
The evacuation zone is all along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it, encompassing MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa International Airport and well-known neighborhoods such as parts of Hyde Park, Davis Islands and Ybor City.
At 2 p.m. EDT on 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, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during an afternoon press conference.
A surge of up to 10 feet of ocean water and 10 inches of rain, with as much as 15 inches in isolated areas, was predicted for the Tampa Bay area. That’s enough water to inundate low-lying coastal communities.
Florida residents were getting ready, lining up for hours in Tampa to collect sandbags and clearing store shelves of bottled water.
Nervous anticipation led to long lines for gas, packed grocery stores and empty shelves, CBS News correspondent Omar Villafranca reports from Clearwater, Florida.
“I tried to get water, but it’s no more, not too much at this moment,” a south Florida woman told CBS station WFOR-TV.
Ian’s impending arrival also prompted NASA to haul itsoff its launch pad and back to the protection of the agency’s Vehicle Assembly Building, likely ending any chance of launching the unpiloted moonshot before November.
“A lot of people on the Florida Peninsula and into the Florida Panhandle are at risk and need to be ready to take action quickly,” said Rick Knabb, a hurricane specialist with The Weather Channel, “and the slow motion that we expect from Ian means we could have wind, storm surge and rain-induced flooding.”
A hurricane watch was issued for Florida’s central western coast, including the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough County suspended classes through Thursday. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles from its center, watches were issued Monday from the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
DeSantis has declared a state of emergency throughout Florida and urged residents to prepare for the storm to lash large swaths of the state with heavy rains, high winds and rising seas.
“We’re going to keep monitoring the track of this storm. But it really is important to stress the degree of uncertainty that still exists,” DeSantis said at a news conference Sunday, cautioning that “even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state.”
Flash and urban flooding is possible in the Florida Keys and Florida Peninsula through midweek, and then heavy rainfall was possible for north Florida, the Florida Panhandle and the southeast United States later this week.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have hurricane plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.
President Biden also declared an 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 scheduled Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.
In Cuba, authorities suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations Monday as Ian approached the island’s westernmost provinces. Cuba also was shutting down its train system ahead of the worst weather.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.
The hurricane center said Ian was expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands on Monday and the storm should reach far-western Cuba late Monday or early Tuesday, hitting near the country’s most famed tobacco fields.
Cayman Islands Premier Wayne Panton said in a video posted Sunday that members of the government and opposition were working together “to ensure that our people are made as safe as possible — the supplies, plywood, in some cases sandbags, are distributed so that they can safely weather this storm … We must prepare for the worst and absolutely pray and hope for the best.”