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Ian just shy of a Category 5 hurricane as it nears Florida: NPR

This image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Ian seen below the International Space Station as the storm gained strength south of Cuba and moved toward Florida on Monday afternoon.

NASA/via AP


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NASA/via AP


This image provided by NASA shows Hurricane Ian seen below the International Space Station as the storm gained strength south of Cuba and moved toward Florida on Monday afternoon.

NASA/via AP

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida. — Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified off Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday morning, packing top winds of 155 mph, just shy of the most dangerous Category 5 status. Damaging winds and rains lashed the state’s densely populated Gulf Coast, with the Naples to Sarasota region at “increased risk” of a devastating storm surge.

US Air Force Hurricane Hunters confirmed Ian gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after hitting Cuba, bringing down the country’s power grid and leaving the entire island without electricity.

The hurricane could push up to 12 feet of ocean water ashore in Florida, the US National Hurricane Center in Miami said, urging people to evacuate the danger zone if they still can. More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee.

Ian was centered about 65 miles west-southwest of Naples at 7 a.m., turning toward the coast at 10 mph.

Floridians rushed before the impact to board up their homes, hide precious belongings on upper floors, and flee.

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

Winds in excess of tropical storm force 63 kph (39 mph) reached Florida at 3 a.m. and the first hurricane-force winds were recorded at 6 a.m., well before the eyewall moved toward inside, the Miami-based center said. Rainfall near the landfall area could exceed 18 inches (46 centimeters).

“It’s a big storm, it’s going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in,” the Florida governor said. Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 in the projected path of the storm: “This is the kind of storm surge that is life-threatening.”

Ian’s forward motion slowed over the Gulf, allowing the hurricane to get wider and stronger, and its forecast track shifted slightly to the south, likely sparing the Tampa Bay area its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. But with gale-force winds expected across much of the peninsula, many cities could suffer significant damage.

Gil González was not risking. He boarded up the windows of his Tampa home with plywood and sandbags to protect against any flooding. He and his wife filled their car with bottled water, flashlights, battery packs for their cell phones and a camp stove before evacuating.

“All the prized possessions, we’ve put them upstairs at a friend’s house,” Gonzalez said.

Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West were closed, as were Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando before the storm.


Eastbound traffic packs Interstate 4 as people evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Ian on Tuesday.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP


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Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP


Eastbound traffic packs Interstate 4 as people evacuate in preparation for Hurricane Ian on Tuesday.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

A couple from England vacationing in Tampa were forced to ride out the storm in a shelter. Glyn and Christine Williams from London were told to leave their hotel near the beach when evacuations were ordered. Because the airport closed, they couldn’t get any flights home.

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

Her husband insisted that everything would be fine. “You know, you have to go with the flow,” Glyn Williams said. “So we’re very happy to do what we’re doing.”

The precise location of the landfall was still uncertain, but with Tropical Storm Ian’s tropical storm-force winds extending 175 miles from its center, statewide flash flooding was possible. Parts of Florida’s east coast also faced a storm surge threat, with isolated tornadoes raging in the storm well before it made landfall.

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 also moved some patients.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also experience torrential rain and some coastal storm surge through Saturday. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency, ordering 500 National Guard soldiers to prepare to respond as needed.

Before turning toward Florida, Ian hit the Cuban province of Pinar del Río with sustained winds of 125 mph, wreaking havoc on the island’s world-famous tobacco belt. No deaths were reported.

The local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage to the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Río and tweeted photos of collapsed roofs, scattered debris and lopped trees. Some people left the weaving area on foot, carrying their children, while buses tried to evacuate others through the waterlogged streets. Others chose to stay in their damaged houses.

“It was horrible,” said Yusimi Palacios, a Pinar del Río resident inside her damaged home. “But here we are alive, and I only ask the Cuban revolution to help me with the roof and the mattress.”

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