Hurricane Ian now a Cat 4 approaching Florida

The storm has forced millions to evacuate ahead of its expected landfall on the densely populated Gulf Coast.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hurricane Ian has grown into a powerful Category 4 storm, threatening millions of people as it approaches Florida.

That. The US National Hurricane Center in Miami said as of 5 a.m. Wednesday that Ian now has sustained top winds of 140 mph (220 km/h) and is centered about 75 miles (125 kilometers) west-southwest of Naples, Florida. Ian was said to be moving north at a forward speed of 17 km/h.

The major hurricane has prompted warnings of potentially dangerous storm surges along the state’s densely populated Gulf Coast from Bonita Beach to the Tampa Bay region.

Wind and rain have started to intensify a day after Ian battered the western tip of Cuba as a dangerous major hurricane. The storm left more than 1 million people there without power before strengthening over the Gulf of Mexico as it approached the west coast of the Florida peninsula.

Florida residents rushed to board up their homes, stow valuable belongings on the upper floors, and flee the approaching Hurricane Ian, fearing the monstrous storm that would knock out power to all of Cuba and its 11 million residents would, with catastrophic winds and catastrophic high tide on their state’s west coast 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. Fueled by the warm Gulf of Mexico, Ian gained strength after plowing through the valuable tobacco-growing region of western Cuba on Tuesday as a Category 3 storm.

Tropical storm-force winds exceeding 40 mph reached Florida by 3 a.m., and hurricane-force winds were expected in Florida well before the eyewall moved inland, the Miami-based center said.

“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 be hit directly by a major hurricane for the first time since 1921.

The storm’s hurricane center was approaching the west coast of Florida, moving north-northeast toward Naples at about 11 mph. Sustained 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.”

The exact location of the landfall was still uncertain, but 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. Warnings were also issued for individual tornadoes.

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 through Saturday. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency and ordered 500 National Guard soldiers to go on standby to respond if necessary.

Before turning towards Florida, Ian hit Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province with sustained 125 mph winds, 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 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 now a Cat 4 approaching Florida

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