“It’s going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said early Wednesday morning that people in Ian’s path along the coast should run to safe shelters as much as possible and stay there.
The massive storm made landfall north of Fort Myers and about 125 miles (201 kilometers) south of Tampa, sparing the Bay Area a rare direct hit from a hurricane. The area is popular with retirees and tourists who are drawn to the pristine white sandy beaches and long barrier islands, which forecasters say could be completely submerged.
A catastrophic storm surge could push 18 feet (3.6 m) to 16 feet (4.9 m) of water along about 100 miles of coastline from Bonita Beach north to Fort Myers and Charlotte Harbor to Englewood, the hurricane center warned. . Up to 18 inches (46 centimeters) of rain could fall near the area of landfall.
“If you are in any of these counties, it will no longer be possible to safely evacuate. It’s time to prepare for the storm and prepare for the storm,” DeSantis said. “Do what you need to do to stay safe. If you are where that storm is approaching, you are already in a dangerous situation. It’s going to spoil pretty quickly. So please sit down.”
More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams and 7,000 National Guard troops ready to help once the weather clears in Florida and elsewhere.
“The assets we have are unprecedented in the history of the state and, unfortunately, they need to be deployed,” DeSantis said.
Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board their homes, store valuables upstairs and join the long lines of cars headed up the coast.
“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who on Tuesday drove inland from the Tampa area with his wife, son, dog and two kittens to find a hotel in Orlando, where only tropical-storm-force winds were expected. . “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it best to evacuate.”
Overnight, Hurricane Ian went through the natural cycle of losing his old eye and forming a new one. The timing was bad for the Florida coast, as the storm grew stronger and larger in the hours before landfall. Ian went from 120 mph (193 kph) to 155 mph (250 kph) in just three hours, the second round of rapid intensification in the storm’s life cycle.
“You’re going to have more wind damage with higher intensity. A larger wind field means more people will experience those hurricane-force winds,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. And “that will really increase the scale of the storm surge.”
Ian’s next movement moved slightly south, perhaps making Tampa and St. Petersburg their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
Instead, the most damaging winds could hit the fast-developing coast where the population has grown sevenfold since 1970, according to the U.S. Census.Lee County has seen the eighth-highest population growth among more than 180 Atlantic and Gulf Coast counties in the past, according to the U.S. Census. 50 years.
There were 250,000 people in the Fort Myers/Lee County mandatory evacuation zone, and before the storm officials feared only 10% or so would leave.
Gil Gonzalez wasn’t taking any chances. He boarded up the windows of his Tampa home with plywood, laid down sandbags and, along with his wife, packed their car with bottled water, flashlights, cellphone battery packs and a camp stove before evacuating. “All the valuables, we put them upstairs at a friend’s house,” Gonzalez said.
Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West were closed ahead of the storm, as were Disney World theme parks and Sea World in Orlando. With hotels on the coast either full or closed and flights canceled, some tourists planned to join locals in emergency shelters.
Ash Dugney watched the ocean water pump out under the Tampa Bay pier Wednesday morning, wondering how strong the tide would be on the way back. He said he doesn’t trust Tampa’s storm drainage system to keep his corner tuxedo rental business safe. Even the mildest storm flooded his neighborhood.
“I don’t care about the wind, the rain and things like that, I just care about the flood,” said Dagny, as he moved essentials from the store and carried other items up to waist level.
The exact location of landfall was still uncertain, but with Ian’s tropical storm-force winds 175 miles (280 kilometers) from its center, flash flooding was possible across the state. Threats include polluted tailings from Florida’s phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than 1 billion tons of slightly radioactive waste that could overflow during heavy rains.
Parts of Florida’s east coast also faced a storm threat, and isolated tornadoes were moving away from the storm prior to landfall. A tornado damaged small planes and a hangar at North Perry Airport on the Atlantic coast west of Hollywood.
Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to brace for a few days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients.
Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could see flooding rain and some coastal swell on Saturday. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in advance, ordering 500 National Guard troops on standby to respond as needed.
Before turning toward Florida, Ian slammed into Cuba’s Pinar del Río province with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph), wreaking havoc in the island nation’s world-famous tobacco belt. No deaths were reported.
Local government station Telepinar reported extensive damage at the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Rio, tweeting photos of collapsed roofs, large amounts of debris and broken trees. Some people fled the area on foot with 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. “But here we are alive, and I only ask the Cuban revolution to help me with a roof and a mattress.”
Associated Press contributors include Cristina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Frieda Frisaro in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre from Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington and Bobby Kaina Calvan in New York.