Hurricane Ian has torn into western Cuba as a major hurricane, with nothing to stop it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 hurricane before it hits Florida on Wednesday.
Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region.
The US National Hurricane Centre said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were occurring on Tuesday morning in western Cuba.
Ian had top winds of 125mph as it moved over the city of Pinar del Rio. As much as 14ft of storm surge was predicted along Cuba’s coast.
After passing over Cuba, Ian is forecast to strengthen over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, reaching top winds of 140mph before making landfall again. Tropical storm-force winds are expected in Florida late on Tuesday, reaching hurricane force on Wednesday morning.
The hurricane centre said there is a 100% chance of damaging winds and water along Florida’s west coast, issuing a hurricane warning from Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River.
Tampa and St Petersburg could get their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County emergency management director Timothy Dudley said on Monday at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
Western Cuba is relatively lightly populated, but with tropical storm force winds extending outwards by 115 miles from Ian’s centre, Cuba’s capital was not spared. Havana’s residents openly worried about flooding ahead of the storm, with workers unclogging storm drains and fishermen taking their boats out of the water.
Ian’s forward movement is expected to slow over the gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger before it brings punishing wind and water to Florida’s west coast.
Forecasters said the surge of ocean water could reach 10ft if it peaks at high tide. Rainfall could total 16in with as much as 24in in isolated areas.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared a state-wide emergency and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies.
“You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” he said at a news conference. “That’s going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flood events. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.”
He said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilised 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighbouring states.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorising the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled trip to Florida because of the storm.
Playing it safe, Nasa was rolling its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Centre hangar, adding weeks of delay to a test flight; airports in Tampa and St Petersburg announced they will close on Tuesday afternoon; and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL side said they will move football operations to the Miami area on Tuesday in preparation for next weekend’s game.
Damaging winds and flooding are expected across the entire peninsula as Ian moves north, reaching into Georgia, South Carolina and other parts of the south-eastern United States.