Powerful, intensifying Hurricane Ian roared across Cuba early Tuesday, a Category 3 storm pounding the island with 125 mph winds and drenching rains – and setting its sights on Florida.
Ian made landfall on Cuba’s western tip, where officials set up shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and worked to protect crops in Cuba’s tobacco-growing region.
“Significant wind and storm surge impacts (are) occurring over Cuba,” said Daniel Brown, senior hurricane specialist and the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The storm was forecast to roll off Cuba and strengthen to a Category 4 storm over warm, Gulf of Mexico waters. The storm’s winds could reach 140 mph before reaching Florida as soon as Wednesday.
Ian will slow down over the gulf, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said.
“Floridians up and down the Gulf Coast should feel the impacts of this,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Hurricane Ian tracker
Tampa and St. Petersburg appear to be the among the most likely targets for a direct hit, their first by a major hurricane since 1921. Ian was forecast to emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday and approach the west coast of Florida Wednesday and Wednesday night. The storm is predicted to slow during this period, the National Hurricane Center warned in an advisory.
“This would likely prolong the storm surge, wind and rainfall impacts along the affected portions of the west coast of Florida,” the advisory says.
Rapid intensification:What does that mean?
Landfall in Cuba:Hurricane Ian grows stronger
Tampa braces for hit
A surge of up to 10 feet of ocean water and 12-16 inches of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 24 inches inches in isolated areas – enough water to inundate coastal communities. Evacuations were underway, and up to 300,000 people could flee from Hillsborough County alone.
Tampa mayor Jane Castor said she and local officials in her region fear “a near worst case scenario” following the latest report by the National Hurricane Center.
“We could handle the wind if it came through quickly, but … we are already saturated in the Tampa Bay area,” Castor told CNN. “And we have a unique situation geographically with the bay being very shallow.”
Heavy rain, flooding forecast for Southeast
Heavy rainfall is expected to affect the Southeast Friday and Saturday, the weather service said. “Widespread, considerable” flash and urban flooding are expected mid-to-late week across central and northern Florida, southern Georgia, and coastal South Carolina. Significant, prolonged river flooding is expected across central to northern Florida.
Limited flash and river flooding is expected over portions of the Southeast into the Mid-Atlantic mid-to-late week.
WHAT IS STORM SURGE?:It’s often a hurricane’s deadliest and most destructive threat
Florida prepares for storm
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has issued a statewide state of emergency, said 5,000 Florida National Guard members were being called into duty, with 2,000 more being sent to Florida from nearby states. The state is working to load 360 trailers with more than 2 million meals and more than 1 million gallons of water to prepare for distribution. Urban Search and Rescue Teams are ready to mobilize where needed, DeSantis said.
“There is going to be an interruption of power, so just plan on that,” DeSantis said. “The impacts are going to be far and wide.”
Hurricane categories, explained:Breaking down the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind speed scale
What is ‘rapid intensification?’
“Rapid intensification” is a process in which a storm undergoes accelerated growth: The phenomenon is typically defined to be a tropical cyclone (whether a tropical storm or hurricane) intensifying by at least 35 mph within 24 hours. Ian is predicted to fit this definition. The storm’s winds were forecast to approach 140 mph by late Tuesday.
Rapid intensification occurs when a tropical storm or hurricane encounters an “extremely conducive environment,” Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said. That typically includes very warm water, low vertical wind shear and high levels of midlevel moisture. Out of the nine hurricanes with winds of 150 mph or greater that struck the U.S. mainland over 103 years, all but one saw the explosion of force and power known as rapid intensification.
Category 4 storms can cause ‘catastrophic’ damage
If the storm struck as a Category 4 hurricane, it could cause “catastrophic” damage, and power outages could last weeks or months, according to the National Weather Service’s description of storms that strong. Areas can be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the weather service says.
“Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state,” DeSantis warned.
Contributing: Celina Tebor, Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; The Associated Press