Hurricane Ian – now a stronger and “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm – has begun lashing Florida with major flooding and ruinous winds as it advances on a large swath of the state’s west coast with the potential within hours to inflict catastrophic floods and life-threatening storm surge.
“Conditions rapidly deteriorating along the southwest Florida coast,” the National Hurricane Center tweeted Wednesday morning, with Ian’s center just 55 miles from the coast.
The area between Naples and Sarasota faces the highest threat of dangerous storm surge, the hurricane center said earlier, with more than 2.5 million people advised to flee, including 1.75 million people under mandatory evacuation orders.
After pummeling Cuba on Tuesday and leaving an islandwide blackout, Ian is taking aim at Florida’s vulnerable Gulf Coast, where residents have been boarding up and leaving in droves on congested highways. Schools, supermarkets, theme parks, hospitals and airports have announced closures. The Navy moved its ships, and the Coast Guard has shut down ports.
Parts of far southern Florida already have begun feeling the storm’s first effects, with tropical storm-force winds and at least two possible tornadoes reported in Broward County, including at North Perry Airport, where planes and hangers were damaged. Major flooding was being reported in Key West due to storm surge, along with power outages.
“The time to evacuate is now,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said Tuesday, calling Ian “a statewide event.”
As winds pick up, officials may close bridges, complicating evacuations for those who don’t leave right away. Gas stations may also temporarily run out of fuel, Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Water levels already were hitting about 2.5 feet above Mean Higher High Water – the third highest level behind 2005’s Hurricane Wilma and 2017’s Hurricane Irma, CNN Meteorologist Robert Shackelford said.
A hurricane warning is in effect on Florida’s Gulf Coast from Chokoloskee to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay, and in the Dry Tortugas. A storm surge warning is in effect for coastal areas, including Tampa Bay.