Evacuations expand in Florida as Hurricane Ian makes landfall over Cuba

Hurricane Ian made landfall over western Cuba early Tuesday as a Category 3 storm, bringing “significant wind and storm surge impacts” as it strengthened toward Florida, forecasters said.

Residents of coastal communities around the Tampa Bay region have been ordered to evacuate and urged to walk even short distances to avoid the worst of the storm.

Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico by late morning as he passes west of the Florida Keys later Tuesday and heading toward the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory.

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

The storm strengthened overnight to become a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum winds estimated at more than 115 mph at its core before making 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 flooding and mudslides were expected in western Cuba overnight and into Tuesday, and urged residents to move quickly to evacuate and protect property.

By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Ian had gained even more strength, 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.

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

“The public demands precision in hurricane forecasts that we are able to provide 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, as jurisdictions in the Tampa Bay region began issuing evacuation orders, for example, it was clear that Ian would ultimately 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 precipitation and elevation event,” Senkbeil said.

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

Jennifer Collins, a University of South Florida geoscience professor who lives in the Tampa region, said her neighbors have been inundating her with questions about storm threats and whether to evacuate. Even if they were not in an evacuation zone, there are still risks that may be too great for some to stay, she explained.

“They’re still focusing on the center of the cone and not the edges of the cone,” Collins said. “You can have significant impacts outside the cone. It’s kind of frustrating to me that they do that. At some stage they’ve said, ‘Oh, we’re OK,’ and I say, ‘I don’t know why you think we’re okay; weren’t. We should be prepared.”

Melissa Thomas, 31, was studying meteorology at Florida State University when Hurricane Michael arrived in 2018. Her parents chose to stay in their home, and as she watched the storm approach, I thought, ‘Do I see my parents dying on the radar?’ I will never forget that thought.”

Thomas worked as an on-camera meteorologist before deciding to become a teacher – now at a high school in Bay County. She now offers forecasts through social media, and as Ian has developed this week, she’s noticed anxiety growing among some Panhandle residents who lived through the previous storm and fear enduring another.

“Just the fact that we’re even in the conversation about possible landfalls really raises people’s awareness of their own stress of being in the cone of uncertainty,” Thomas said.

Even if Ian lands elsewhere, she added, “it’s still very scary to be talked about on the periphery of such a storm.”

Ian is threatening to bring severe flooding and damaging winds to Florida’s Gulf Coast, appearing to make landfall somewhere between Naples and the West Coast’s Big Bend area between Wednesday and Thursday. It is expected to become a Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds 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, making landfall as a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.

Hurricane warnings were issued across the Tampa Bay region Monday night along with storm surge warnings, and on Tuesday the National Hurricane Center extended it south to Bonita Springs, south of Fort Myers and Cape Coral. That’s because forecast models increasingly suggested Ian would make landfall toward the southern zone of earlier predictions, close to Tampa Bay or just to the south.

The hurricane’s biggest threat may be the storm surge – a rise in seawater over normally dry land caused by low air pressure and wind. The National Hurricane Center predicts that Ian could send as much as 5 to 10 feet of storm surge onto the Florida coastline, a danger that could be deadly and destructive. The gentle slope of the ocean floor along Florida’s coastline means that even a minor hurricane or tropical storm may be capable of causing severe coastal flooding.

The storm’s expected slow motion as it approaches Florida also likely 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 no named tropical cyclones formed during August for the first time in 25 years. While meteorologists had seen as many as five tropical systems in recent days, including an incipient Ian, the storm is now one of two under watch. The other, several hundred kilometers west of the Cabo Verde Islands, may soon become Tropical Storm Julia.

Brittany Shammas, Annabelle Timsit and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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