Evacuations expand in Florida as Hurricane Ian makes landfall over Cuba

WEATHER NEWS: Evacuations expand in Florida as Hurricane Ian makes landfall over Cuba

TAMPA — Thousands more Floridians in low-lying coastal communities were ordered to evacuate Tuesday morning as Hurricane Ian, which made landfall as a Category 3 storm over western Cuba hours earlier, shifted south while continuing to barrel toward the state with what Gov. Ron DeSantis called “historic storm surge and flood potential.”

With more than 2 million Florida residents already under evacuation orders, officials in Hillsborough County, home to the uniquely ill-prepared city of Tampa, expanded their mandate to an additional 90,000 people in areas most in danger of flooding. Although the hurricane’s forecast path had moved toward Southwest Florida, DeSantis (R) warned that severe impacts were still expected in the Tampa Bay region and urged those who had already left to stay away.

“We are looking at really, really major storm surge up and down the west coast of Florida,” DeSantis said.

Local leaders cautioned that even an indirect hit from the hurricane could devastate waterside communities, and authorities said impacts were now expected across the width of the peninsula. Power outages could linger for days, while “disruptions in fuel supplies” are possible, the governor said. Urban search and rescue teams, high water vehicles and law enforcement aviation units have been prepositioned around the state. Five thousand Florida National Guard troops, as well as 2,000 additional troops from other states, have been activated, officials said.

Hillsborough County emergency management officials said they were bracing for a dramatic increase Tuesday in the number of people seeking refuge in shelters. Floridians who had decided to wait out the storm were rushing to make last-minute preparations, stocking up on supplies and hurricane-proofing their homes.

Others, meanwhile, were racing to escape of Ian’s path. South Tampa residents Raymond Oubichon and his girlfriend, Chantell Holden, hit the road at 6 a.m. Tuesday, and by mid-morning were in the parking lot of a fully booked Motel 6 just off I-75 in Ocala, about 100 miles north of home. They’d struck out at other hotels and were waiting to see if a room opened after check-in.

Oubichon, 49, a retired entertainer from New Orleans, was out of town when Hurricane Katrina devastated that city in 2005. But his family and neighborhood were hit hard. “So I know what water and storm surge can do. I’ve only been in Tampa for two years, but I did not want to try to ride out a hurricane here,” Oubichon said. Even, he added, if it meant having to put overpriced hotel rooms on his new credit card. “I don’t want to max it out already, but also, I don’t want to die. So here we are.”

Ian moved into the Gulf of Mexico in the late morning and was expected to pass west of the Florida Keys later Tuesday and head for the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane by Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in its most recent advisory.

Ian forecast: Major hurricane landfall expected along Florida’s west coast

The storm intensified overnight to become a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum winds estimated at more than 115 mph at its core before it made landfall near La Coloma in the Pinar Del Rio Province of Cuba. The National Hurricane Center warned that life-threatening storm surges, hurricane-force winds, flash floods and mudslides were expected in western Cuba overnight and into Tuesday, urging residents to move quickly to evacuate and protect property.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Ian had gained even more force, with 125 mph maximum sustained winds as it moved north at 12 mph, about 130 miles southwest of Dry Tortugas National Park near the Florida Keys. But its track remained uncertain.

Weather models diverged in recent days on whether Ian might hit as far north as the Big Bend region or stall over Tampa Bay, but there was stronger agreement Tuesday that the storm’s forecast cone is trending south, with a likely landfall somewhere between Tampa Bay and Cape Coral.

That means the highest storm surge risk could be just to the south of Tampa Bay, with as much as 12 feet of ocean water surging over normally dry land. But Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said that should not cause Tampa-area residents to pull back on preparations. Following the region’s summer rainy season, the ground is soft, so downed trees are likely to cause extended power outages, and some models suggest up to two feet of rain is possible in some areas.

“Don’t get enamored with the track and its recent shifts,” Rhome said.

The storm’s apparent southward shift evoked memories of 2004′s Hurricane Charley, which devastated Punta Gorda, Fla., after it abruptly swerving east instead of striking Tampa. But DeSantis stressed on Tuesday that Ian was different from Charley — and probably worse.

“Charley was a lot smaller…and most of the damage from Charley was from wind and wind destruction,” DeSantis said. “What we have here is really historic storm surge and flooding potential. So if you look at places like Fort Myers, Charlotte County, Sarasota, the storm surge you are going to see generated from this is going to far eclipse what we saw there.”

The challenge of pinning down Ian’s track meant difficult decisions for residents on whether to evacuate or stay, according to researchers who study hurricanes and evacuations.

The scene in Florida as residents prepare for Hurricane Ian

“The public is demanding precision in hurricane forecasts that we are able to give them in most storms,” said Jason Senkbeil, a professor in the geography department at the University of Alabama. But with Ian, he said, “it’s frustrating.”

On Monday, when jurisdictions in the Tampa Bay region began handing down evacuation orders, for example, it was clear Ian would eventually arrive as a strong storm, but plausible variations in its forecast track could mean the difference between relatively brief hurricane force winds and “a huge rainfall and surge event,” Senkbeil said.

“I just don’t know if people can pick up on those differences,” he said.

As the sky went dark over Key West on Monday night, Mark Jacob decided to roll up the striped awnings and board the windows of his store, Duck and Dolphin Antiques. He and a friend covered the glass with numbered wooden planks, carrying out a routine he had done several times, with the same boards, over the past two decades.

“You usually walk down Duval Street,” Jacob said, referring to Key West’s main drag, “and say, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’”

“Everyone is unsure,” he added.

Jennifer Collins, a geosciences professor at the University of South Florida who lives in the Tampa region, said her neighbors have been peppering her with questions about storm threats and whether to evacuate. While they weren’t in an evacuation zone, there are still risks that may be too great for some to stay behind, she explained.

“They still focus on the center of the cone and not the edges of the cone,” Collins said. “You can get significant impacts outside of the cone. It’s kind of frustrating to me that they do that. At some stages they have been saying, ‘Oh, we’re okay,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know why you think we’re okay; we’re not. We should be getting prepared.”

Ian threatens to bring severe flooding and damaging winds to Florida’s Gulf Coast, appearing bound for landfall between Wednesday and Thursday. It is forecast to become a Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds by late Tuesday, which would make it the strongest September hurricane in the gulf since Rita in 2005. The storm is then expected to weaken slightly as it approaches Florida, striking land as a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.

Hurricane warnings were issued across the Tampa Bay region Monday evening, along with storm surge warnings, and on Tuesday the National Hurricane Center extended it southward to Bonita Springs, south of Fort Myers and Cape Coral. That is because weather forecasting models were increasingly suggesting Ian will make landfall toward the southern zone of earlier predictions, close to Tampa Bay or even just to its south.

The hurricane’s biggest threat may be the storm surge — a rise in ocean water over normally dry land caused by low air pressure and winds. The National Hurricane Center predicts Ian could send as much as 5 to 10 feet of storm surge onto Florida’s coastline, a hazard that can be deadly and destructive. The gentle slope of the ocean bottom along the Florida coastline means that even a minor hurricane or tropical storm can be capable of causing serious coastal inundation.

The storm’s expected slow movement as it approaches Florida also probably means flooding rains, with 10 to 20 inches or more possible in some areas.

Ian comes as part of a surge of late-season tropical activity in the Atlantic basin where, for the first time in 25 years, no named tropical cyclones formed during August. While meteorologists had been watching as many as five tropical systems in recent days, including a nascent Ian, the storm is now one of two under surveillance. The other, several hundred miles west of the Cabo Verde Islands, could soon become Tropical Storm Julia.

Thebault reported from Tampa; Rosza reported from Ocala; Dance reported from Washington; and Brulliard reported from Boulder, Colo. Brittany Shammas in Key West, Fla., Annabelle Timsit and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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