HAVANA (AP) – Hurricane Ian grew stronger as it raced toward Cuba on a track to hit Florida’s west coast as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday.
Ian was forecast to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger one Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) over warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Florida.
As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg to be among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“Please take this storm seriously. This is the real thing. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a storm preparedness news conference in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba were evacuating 50,000 people in Pinar del Rio province, sending in medical and emergency personnel and taking steps to protect food and other crops in warehouses, according to state media.
“Cuba expects extreme winds of hurricane force, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” said senior specialist Daniel Brown of the US National Hurricane Center to the Associated Press.
The hurricane center predicted that areas of Cuba’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge Monday evening or early Tuesday.
In Havana, fishermen took their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon, the boardwalk, and city workers emptied storm drains ahead of the expected rain.
Adyz Ladron, who lives in Havana, said the potential for rising waters from the storm worries him.
“I’m very scared because my house is going to be completely flooded, with water up to here,” he said, pointing to his chest.
In Havana’s El Fanguito, a poor neighborhood near the Almendares River, residents packed what they could to leave their homes, many of which show damage from previous storms.
“I hope we get rid of this because it would be the end of us. We already have so little,” said health worker Abel Rodrigues, 54.
On Monday night, Ian was moving northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), about 105 miles (169 kilometers) southeast of the western tip of Cuba, with sustained top winds increasing to 105 mph (169 kph).
The hurricane’s center passed west of the Cayman Islands, but no major damage was reported there on Monday and residents went back to the streets as the winds subsided.
“We seem to have dodged the bullet,” said Grand Cayman resident Gary Hollins. “I’m a happy camper.”
Ian will not linger over Cuba, but will slow over the Gulf of Mexico, grow wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along Florida’s west coast,” the hurricane center said.
A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of sea water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted over the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) in isolated areas. That’s enough water to flood coastal communities.
As many as 300,000 people could be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, County Administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations began Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other places opening as shelters.
“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned that Ian could batter large swaths of the state, knocking out power and disrupting fuel supplies as it swirls north off the state’s Gulf Coast.
“You have a significant storm that could end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “It’s going to cause a tremendous amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flooding. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.”
DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida State National Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect life and property. The president postponed a planned Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.
To play it safe, NASA planned to slowly roll its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the football team was moving football activities to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers said the team will leave Tampa on Tuesday.
Flooding was forecast for much of the Florida peninsula, and heavy rainfall was possible for the southeastern United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 185 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that while no one will be forced to leave, mandatory evacuation orders are expected to begin Tuesday.
“That means we’re not going to come and help you. If you don’t, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
Zones to be evacuated include all of Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders.
“This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have survival plans in place and monitor for updates of the storm’s development path.
Associated Press contributors include Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; and Julie Walker in New York.