Sarasota, Fla., Sept. 28 (Reuters) – Residents emptied grocery store shelves, boarded up windows and fled as Hurricane Ian intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm as it approached Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday. Go to evacuation shelter.
In the update, the National Hurricane Center placed Ian about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of Punta Gorda, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour).
In upgrading Ian to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane, the NHC said the storm is expected to weaken after reaching land.
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“The storm is coming,” said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management, warning of the possibility of widespread power outages and tornadoes.
“Stay indoors. Stay away from windows,” he told an early morning news conference.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned that people in Collier, Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties could no longer safely evacuate and urged people to get off the road and stay indoors.
“It’s time to calm down and prepare for this storm. It’s a powerful storm and should treat your home like a tornado,” he said. “It’s going to be a nasty, nasty day or two. It’s going to be a tough time.”
Ian, who battered Cuba on Tuesday, knocking out power across the Caribbean island, is expected to hit Florida on Wednesday night south of Tampa Bay, somewhere between Sarasota and Naples.
The first hurricane advisory on Wednesday set Ian’s maximum sustained winds near 120 mph (195 kph), placing it as a Category 3, but said the storm is expected to strengthen.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned that Ian will also unleash violent surf, life-threatening coastal flooding and more than a foot of rain in some areas.
Authorities urged more than 2.5 million residents to evacuate their homes to higher ground.
With miles of sandy beaches, dozens of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks, coastal Florida, the country with the highest risk of landing in the U.S., is a favorite among retirees and vacationers.
“We’re right on the water, along the canals, so … it could be devastating,” said Melissa Wolcott Martino, 78, a retired magazine editor in St. Petersburg. On Tuesday, she and her husband packed valuables and pets into their car and prepared to drive to their son’s home north of Tampa.
By late Tuesday night, tropical storm-strength winds from Ian stretched across the Florida Keys island chain to the southernmost coast of the state’s Gulf Coast, the NHC said.
The NHC also issued a storm surge warning for much of western Florida’s coastline, predicting coastal flooding of up to 12 feet due to wind-driven high waves.
“It’s time to evacuate. Hit the road,” Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said at a news conference Tuesday night, urging residents to heed evacuation warnings.
DeSantis warned late Tuesday that evacuations will be difficult for those waiting longer to flee, as increasing winds will soon force authorities to close highway bridges.
Urgency and Complacency
“You need to get to higher ground, you need to get to safe buildings,” DeSantis said, adding that once the storm hits, widespread power outages will leave millions without power.
Deanne Criswell, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said she was concerned that few Florida residents took the threat seriously.
“I do worry about complacency,” Criswell said Tuesday. “We’re talking about impacts in parts of Florida that haven’t had a major direct impact in nearly 100 years. Parts of Florida also have a lot of new residents.”
If Ian hits the Tampa area, it will be the first hurricane to make landfall in the area since the Tarpon Springs storm in 1921.
It could also prove to be one of the most expensive, with data modeling service Enki Research forecasting storm-related losses ranging from $38 billion to more than $60 billion.
Ian churned along the southeastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, heading to Florida after hitting Cuba, knocking out power grids for 11 million people and wreaking havoc and flooding on the island’s western tip.
Cuba has begun to slowly restore power to the eastern end of the island, the national electricity provider said earlier on Wednesday.
Cuba’s already fragile power grid, which relies heavily on outdated Soviet-era oil-fired power plants, was shaking in the months leading up to the storm. But Hurricane Ian has proved too much, officials said, knocking out power even in Cuba’s Far East, an area largely unaffected by the storm.
In Florida, authorities suspended tolls along major highways in the central part of the state and the Tampa Bay area in an effort to ease traffic congestion during evacuations.
Some residents, like Vanessa Vazquez, 50, are a software engineer in St. Louis. St. Petersburg said they planned to weather the storm at home despite evacuation warnings.
“I’m staying put,” Vazquez said. “I have four cats and I don’t want to stress them. And we have a solid house.”
school to shelter
DeSantis said nearly 60 school districts in Florida canceled classes because of the hurricane. More than 175 evacuation centers have opened across the state, many of which have been converted into shelters.
“This is a mobile home community, and they really need this shelter,” said Fabiola Galvan Leon, a kindergarten teacher who helped hundreds of children flock to Reddick Elementary School in Wimauma, southeast of Tampa. The evacuees acted as bilingual translators.
Commercial airlines reported more than 2,000 storm-related U.S. flight cancellations, with St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and Tampa International Airport closed Tuesday.
Shelves at a nearby Walmart store were nearly empty, although some shoppers hurried down the aisle to pick up last boxes of water, canned goods and bread.
The Walt Disney Company (DIS.N) announced it will close its Florida theme parks and water parks on Wednesday and Thursday, while the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers relocate to Miami, where they will join the Kansas City Chiefs this week. Teams practice Sunday before the game.
The approaching storm also disrupted the energy industry on the Gulf Coast, as personnel were evacuated from 14 production platforms and drilling rigs, disrupting about 11 percent of the region’s oil production.
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Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sarasota; Additional reporting by Maria Alejandra Cardona in Tampa, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Steve Holland, Brendan O’Brien and Tyler Clifford in Washington and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Writing and additional reporting Edited by Shri Navaratnam and Mark Heinrich
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