Ian is now a Category 4 hurricane as it approaches Southwest Florida

Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified off the southwest coast of Florida on Wednesday morning, gaining top winds of 250 kilometers per hour, just short of the most dangerous Category 5 status. Devastating winds and rain battered the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, with areas from Naples to Sarasota at the “highest risk” of a devastating storm surge.

U.S. Air Force hurricane chasers confirmed that Ian gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after battering Cuba, where two people were killed and island residents fled found without electricity.

The US National Hurricane Center in Miami said Ian’s center was about 80 kilometers west of Naples at 10 a.m. ET, as he headed for the coast at 15 kilometers per hour. Ian’s brisk pace meant the storm was expected to spend a day or more crawling across the Florida peninsula, dumping torrential rains of 30 to 45 centimeters over a wide area including Tampa Bay, Orlando and Jacksonville in the northeast corner. east of the state.

The major hurricane triggered potentially dangerous storm surge warnings along the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast.

“Ninety percent of your deaths in these tropical systems are from water – it’s storm surge, it’s rain,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service.

Catastrophic storm surges could push 3.6 meters or more of water over more than 400 kilometers of coastline, the hurricane center has warned.

Graham pointed to the slowness of the system during a briefing on Wednesday, saying it would take around 24 hours after landing for Ian to cross Florida. He also urged residents to exercise caution and follow instructions if using gas generators, which have also resulted in storm-related deaths in past hurricanes.

Research teams, mobilized troops

Off the coast on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, swirling water covered residential streets and was halfway up mailbox posts by mid-morning. Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed at the end of a wooden pier in Naples

More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams and 7,000 troops from the Florida National Guard and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears. .

An uprooted tree, toppled by strong winds from Hurricane Ian’s outer bands, lies in a shopping mall parking lot in Cooper City, Florida, just north of Miami, on Wednesday. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)

Isolated tornadoes triggered the storm well before landfall, one of which damaged small planes and a hangar at North Perry Airport, west of Hollywood along the Atlantic coast.

Floridians rushed to lock up their homes, stash their prized possessions on the upper floors and flee.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area on Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens in search of a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando. “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Nair and his family were among at least 2.5 million Florida residents who were ordered to evacuate in anticipation of powerful storm surge, high winds and torrential rain.

Winds blow palm trees early Wednesday in Charlotte Harbor, Fla., located between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers in West Florida. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

Planned power outages

Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to prepare for days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents were evacuated from several Tampa-area nursing homes, where hospitals were also moving some patients.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West airports have closed. Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando all closed ahead of the storm.

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A couple from England vacationing in Tampa found themselves battling the storm at a shelter. Glyn and Christine Williams from London were ordered to leave their hotel near the beach when evacuations were ordered. Because the airport closed, they couldn’t catch a flight home.

“Unfortunately all the hotels are either full or closed so it looks like we’re going to be in one of the shelters,” Christine Williams said.

“You know, you have to go with the flow,” added Glyn Williams. “So we’re very happy to do what we do.”

Georgia and South Carolina also on alert

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also see torrential rains and some coastal surge on Saturday. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency, putting 500 National Guard troops on standby to respond to the need.

Before heading to Florida, Ian hit the Cuban province of Pinar del Rio with sustained winds of 205 km/h. State media reported two deaths in the province: a woman killed by a falling wall and another by a collapsed roof.

The storm also caused destruction in the island nation’s famous tobacco belt, including one of Cuba’s most important tobacco farms, Finca Robaina.

“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” said Hirochi Robaina, owner of the farm that bears his name and that his grandfather made known internationally.

A vintage car drives through debris caused by Hurricane Ian after passing through Pinar del Rio, Cuba, on Wednesday. (Alexander Meneghini/Reuters)

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the affected region, telling the population: “Although the first impact is very painful, there is nothing else to do but overcome adversity.”

Cuba’s Ministry of Energy and Mines announced that it had restored power to three regions by activating two large power plants in Felton and Nuevitas and working to bring the others back online.

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