Hurricane Ian hits Cuba, Florida prepares for its arrival

HAVANA — Hurricane Ian slammed into western Cuba as a major hurricane on Tuesday, knocking out power across the country and leaving 11 million people without power. It then rushed on a collision course with Florida over warm Gulf waters, which is expected to strengthen it into a catastrophic Category 4 storm.

Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province — at 4:30 a.m. Montreal time on Tuesday — where authorities set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, dispatched emergency personnel and took steps to protect the agricultural crops in the main tobacco-growing region of the country. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Cuba experienced « significant winds and storm surges » when the hurricane struck with peak sustained winds of 205 mph.

Ian was expected to get even stronger over the Gulf of Mexico, reaching winds of 209 km/h as it approaches the southwest coast of Florida, where 2.5 million people have received the order to evacuate.

Tropical storm-force winds were expected in the Southern Peninsula on Tuesday evening, then reaching hurricane-force on Wednesday – when the eye of the hurricane is expected to make landfall. Due to 225 km/h winds in the heart of Ian, damage was expected across a large area of ​​Florida.

The hurricane warning covers approximately 290 kilometers of Florida’s west coast. The National Hurricane Center has expanded its warning to encompass Bonita Beach, Tampa Bay and Anclote River. Fort Myers is also in the hurricane zone, and Tampa and St. Petersburg could be hit by the first major hurricane since 1921.

“Please treat this storm seriously. This is the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said Monday during a press conference about preparations for the storm in Tampa.

It was not yet known exactly where Hurricane Ian would make landfall. Its exact path could determine the severity of the storm surge for Tampa Bay, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. Landing south of the bay could make the impact « much less severe », he said.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged people to prepare for extended power outages and to move away from the storm’s potential path. He warned that extensive property damage is anticipated no matter where Ian makes landfall.

« It’s a big storm, it’s going to push a lot of water as it comes in, » DeSantis told a news conference in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 that could be affected. “And you’re going to end up with really big storm surge and you’re going to end up with really big flooding. And that’s the kind of storm surge that’s life-threatening. »

Hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several Tampa-area seniors’ residences, where hospitals also moved some patients. Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West airports have closed. The Busch Gardens amusement park in Tampa has closed until at least Tuesday, while Disney World in Orlando has closed four hotels.

NASA slowly rolled its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.

Residents prepare

Ian won’t linger over Cuba, but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, widening and strengthening, « which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the US Hurricane Center said.

Gil Gonzalez boarded up his windows with plywood on Tuesday and had sandbags ready to protect his Tampa home. He and his wife had stocked up on bottled water and packaged flashlights, batteries for their cell phones and a camp stove with a large propane burner as they prepared to evacuate.

“All the most valuable possessions, we put them upstairs in a friend’s house and nearby, and we loaded the car,” Mr. Gonzalez said, adding that he thought they were loans.

A storm surge of up to three meters of seawater is possible. It could fall between 40 and 60 centimeters of rain in some places, enough water to flood coastal communities.

« He’s a monster and then there’s confusion about his trajectory, » said Renee Correa, who headed to Orlando from the Tampa area with her daughter and Chihuahua. Tampa was lucky for 100 years, but it’s a little scary now. »

Kelly Johnson was preparing to hide out at her home two blocks from the beach in Dunedin, west of Tampa. She said she would take refuge on the second floor if the sea water got inland and that she had prepared a generator in case she lost the electricity.

« I’m a Floridian and we know how to deal with hurricanes, » Johnson said. It’s part of living in paradise – knowing that every now and then those storms come your way. »

Forecasters have warned that the hurricane will be felt over a wide area as it crosses Florida with an expected northward turn. Flash flooding was possible across the state, and parts of Florida’s east coast faced a threat of storm surge as Ian’s gusts approached the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also see torrential rains this weekend.

Emergency state

Separately, President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergencies Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. . The president postponed a trip planned for Tuesday to Florida because of the storm.

Mr. Biden claimed that his administration was sending hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees to Florida. He sought to assure mayors that in the storm’s path, Washington would meet their needs. He urged residents to comply with orders from local authorities.

“Your safety is more important than anything,” he said.

Up to 300,000 people could be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other places open as shelters.

“We must do everything to protect our residents. Time is running out,” added Ms. Wise.

A county official has warned that no one will come to the rescue of residents who choose not to evacuate.

Lee County, which includes the city of Fort Myers, ordered mandatory evacuations Tuesday morning, including for Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Bonita Beach, which have about 250,000 residents.

« Those who decide not to leave do so at their own risk, » Lee County Executive Roger Desjarlais said early Tuesday. The best thing to do is leave. With the storm surge we’re talking about, the islands could be flooded and it’s a dangerous place. The law does not allow us to expel people from the islands, but we strongly recommend that they leave.”

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to pick up sandbags and clean shelves at bottled water stores. Governor DeSantis announced that the state had 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.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the football team is relocating practices to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers said the team would leave Tampa on Tuesday.

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