Ian strengthens to hurricane as it churns toward Cuba, Florida

WEATHER NEWS: Ian strengthens to hurricane as it churns toward Cuba, Florida

Some coastal Tampa-area residents were ordered to evacuate and Florida officials warned the state’s Gulf Coast on Monday to prepare for major, widespread impacts hours after the National Hurricane Center upgraded Ian to a hurricane — a storm on its wayto becoming the first significant hurricane to hit Florida since 2018.

“This thing is coming this week,” Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said at a briefing Monday. “We know we’re going to have some major impacts throughout the state of Florida.”

But first, Ian is expected to slam western Cuba as a “major” hurricane Monday night — bringing with it destructive winds and surging floodwaters. Major hurricanes are Category 3 or above and pack sustained winds of more than 111 mph.

Florida is under a state of emergency, and DeSantis told residents to expect power outages, fuel disruptions and flooding. Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa, issued a mandatory evacuation of its coastal areas starting at 2 p.m. Monday, as did Hernando and Manatee counties to its north and south. DeSantis said more evacuation orders are likely.

Though it remains uncertain where Ian will strike — weather forecasting models continue suggest landfall anywhere between the Tampa Bay and Panhandle regions — even a glancing blow could produce significant coastal flooding. Ian is expected to pass west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday and approach the state’s west coast Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said Monday.

In an update Monday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (D) warned residents that “Ian is coming — even though he is not invited — and we are going to feel the effects one way or the other.”

A tropical storm warning — a forecast for the possibility of sustained wind speeds of 39 to 73 mph within 36 hours — was issued by the National Hurricane Center on Sunday night for the lower Florida Keys, from Seven Mile Bridge southward to Key West. It was still in effect Monday morning, as well as for three provinces on Cuba’s northern shore and for the Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Florida.

In Cuba, officials closed schools in Pinar del Rio province, began shutting down train systems and planned evacuations Monday as Ian approached the island’s westernmost provinces, the Associated Press reported. The storm was expected to pass relatively quickly over Cuba Monday night into Tuesday, the hurricane center said, before slowing to a crawl along Florida’s west coast.

There, in areas surrounding Tampa Bay, hurricane and storm surge watches were in effect, indicating that fierce winds and a storm-driven surge of ocean water over normally dry land could be on the way. National Weather Service forecasters urged residents to prepare for the possibility of impassable roads, power and communication outages and buildings rendered uninhabitable.

Officials in Pinellas County, a stretch of coast west of Tampa and home to some of the state’s most famed beaches, urged residents in areas prone to flooding to protect their homes and exhorted those in storm-surge regions to prepare to evacuate.

The hurricane center predicts 5 to 8 feet of storm surge will be possible along Florida’s Gulf Coast, and even in areas that avoid a direct hit, coastal flooding could be dramatic. Pinellas emergency management director Cathie Perkins likened the storm surge to “a wall of water” that could push houses off their foundations, wash out roads and flood electrical equipment that powers high-rise elevators. The gentle slope of the continental shelf off the Florida coastline can greatly exacerbate storm surge risk, with even a minimal hurricane capable of causing serious coastal inundation.

What to know about the hurricane threat to Florida

When evacuation orders come, Pinellas officials said, residents would not be forced out, but emergency workers would not respond to calls for assistance.

“We’re not coming, because we’re not going to put our people in harm’s way,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, adding: “This is the real deal. This is serious. There’s every indication that we’re going to have real impact here in Pinellas County.”

North Florida, the Florida Panhandle and portions of the Southeast may be hit with heavy rainfall on Thursday, Friday and into Saturday, the hurricane center said. Experts also are predicting that the storm’s effects could stretch into Georgia and across the East Coast.

The storm’s track and intensity remain uncertain as it approaches the U.S. mainland. Computer models are divided on whether Ian will come ashore along Florida’s west coast on Wednesday into Thursday, or chart a course nearer to the Panhandle on Thursday into Friday.

The source of uncertainty is whether Ian will “hitch a ride” on a trough, or dip in the jet stream, that could pull the storm eastward. European and American weather forecasting models continue to disagree on how that dynamic could play out, making the forecast a tenuous and challenging one. For Florida’s densely populated Gulf Coast, a difference of 40 miles in the storm’s track to the east or west could be the difference between experiencing only tropical storm conditions and Ian’s most destructive winds. Either scenario remains plausible.

At 11 a.m. Monday, Ian was centered about 240 miles southeast of Cuba’s western tip and was churning to the northwest at 13 mph. Its peak winds were 80 mph.

Ian strengthened rapidly overnight, going from a low-end tropical storm with 45 mph winds to hurricane status with 75 mph winds within 12 hours. The storm is forecast to continue to rapidly intensify through Monday and into Tuesday, as it moves over exceptionally warm waters.

Ian is predicted to peak as a 130 mph Category 4 hurricane west of the Florida Straits on Tuesday, which would make it the strongest September hurricane to pass through the Gulf of Mexico since Rita in 2005.

Winds and rain blew through the Cayman Islands on Sept. 26, as Hurricane Ian passed by en route to Cuba and Florida. (Video: Reshma Ragoonath/Cayman Compass Grand Cayman)

President Biden approved an emergency declaration Saturday for Florida, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts and provided more federal funding.

The Florida National Guard has activated 5,000 troops, DeSantis said Monday, and is also bringing in 2,500 troops from neighboring states. He warned on Sunday for residents of the state to “expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge and even isolated tornadoes.”

Western Cuba faces 6 to 10 inches of rain and locally as much as 16 inches, potentially triggering flash flooding and mudslides through Thursday, according to the National Hurricane Center. Heavy rainfall is also forecast over the Cayman Islands, where 3 to 6 inches — and a maximum of 8 inches — are possible.

Meanwhile, central western Florida could face 8 to 10 inches of rain, and the rest of the Florida Peninsula could see up to 8 inches.

Ian is the sixth named storm to form this month, coming on the heels of a record-quiet August, during which not a single named storm formed.

The cyclone began its rapid intensification Sunday night, when a large “convective burst,” or blossoming of thunderstorm activity, occurred near the center of the then-ragged storm, allowing the system to organize around a column of swirling winds.

As of 8 a.m. Monday, Ian was 375 miles from western Cuba, which is bracing for what’s likely to be a serious hurricane strike on Monday night. Winds on the order of 120 mph are forecast in Ian’s eyewall, the region of fury that surrounds the eerily-calm eye.

As it passes Cuba, Ian could bring a storm surge of 9 to 13 feet close to its center, even inundating coastal areas hundreds of miles away with floodwaters.

Ian will pass well west of the Florida Straits on Tuesday, but could still bring tides two to four feet higher than normal for the Keys. It’s worth noting that much of Key West, for example, sits only three feet above sea level, so even “minor” surges can become high-impact flood events.

Ian will continue gaining strength in the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, aided in particular by favorable upper-level winds evacuating spent “exhaust” air away from the storm’s center. The more air that exits a storm from above, the more moisture-rich air that can spiral inward and fuel it from below.

By Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center expects Ian to peak at Category 4 status with 140 mph winds as it lurks 150 miles or so west of the Florida Everglades.

It will slow down then as it whirs closer to the west coast of Florida, forecast to be centered just 30 or 40 miles west of Tampa Bay early Thursday morning. The Hurricane Center predicts it will be a weakening Category 3 hurricane with winds to 115 mph.

Regardless of how close Ian comes to Florida’s coast, the long duration of onshore flow aimed at the coastline will make for serious erosion. Heavy rainfall could soak the peninsula too, while spiral rain bands rotating ashore could drop a couple of tornadoes over the Sunshine State.

For now, the storm is expected to make landfall with Category 1 status on the Nature Coast north of Homosassa Springs before rapidly weakening as it moves inland. Gusty squalls, heavy rainfall and a few tornadoes are possible over the Southeast, including Georgia and the Carolinas, this upcoming weekend.

Karin Brulliard, Tim Craig, Jason Samenow and Annabelle Timsit contributed to this report.

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