As Hurricane Ian picks up steam and heads north toward Cuba and eventually the United States, Florida residents have been urged to begin evacuations of low-lying areas and prepare for serious storm surge in the coming days.
Forecasters on Monday warned of “significant” winds and storm surge for western Cuba, and issued watches and warnings for much of the region, including the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys and Grand Cayman.
The National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch for parts of the west coast of Florida, including Tampa Bay, where the governor, Ron DeSantis, warned residents to begin preparing for the storm’s arrival. A watch means that hurricane conditions are possible, and is typically issued a few days before the arrival of strong winds.
Governor DeSantis said on Monday that the east coast of Florida could also have impacts from the anticipated 500-mile wide storm, with possible flooding. “This has really developed into a big storm,” he said at a briefing.
Hurricane Ian was expected to become a major hurricane — meaning Category 3 or stronger, with winds of at least 111 miles per hour — as soon as Monday night when it is nearing Cuba, forecasters said. Its winds on Monday morning were 80 m.p.h.
At 11 a.m. on Monday, it was 100 miles west of Grand Cayman, moving at 13 m.p.h., the hurricane center said. The Cayman Islands government warned residents on Monday to expect “extremely rough seas” and a storm surge.
The government there issued advisories telling people to keep boats in harbors, to have an emergency plan for evacuations and to locate the nearest shelters. “For your safety, we urge members of the community to stay off the roads and avoid the shoreline during the storm,” it said. “Strong winds, flying debris and storm surge can cause serious injury.”
Ian was 240 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba early on Monday. By Monday night, the forecast track puts Ian near or over western Cuba, the forecasters said. On Tuesday, Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, follow a course west of the Florida Keys late on Tuesday, and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday.
“The surge vulnerability along the west coast of Florida is very extreme,” Jamie Rhome, the acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a briefing on Sunday. “I’m telling you, it doesn’t take an onshore or direct hit from a hurricane to pile up the water.”
Some Florida communities began to issue evacuation orders or signal they might be ahead. Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, ordered people in low-lying areas along the shore and rivers as well as all mobile homes in the county to evacuate starting at 2 p.m. on Monday.
Some school districts in Florida had announced closures. Hillsborough County Public Schools said it had “no choice but to close schools” Monday through Thursday because county officials planned to use many schools as storm shelters starting on Monday. Pasco County Schools said schools and offices would be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Scott Stricklin, the athletic director at the University of Florida, said on Twitter on Monday that the Gators’ home game on Saturday against Eastern Washington University remained “scheduled as planned.” But Mr. Stricklin said officials were monitoring the storm and how it could affect Gainesville, where the university is located.
At least two colleges ordered students to evacuate. Bethune-Cookman University, located in Daytona Beach, Fla. on the east coast of the state, issued a mandatory campus evacuation order starting Monday at noon, and an announcement said that a return date would be determined once it was safe. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg also ordered people to prepare to leave campus.
The Florida Keys could get two to four inches of rain, with some areas receiving up to six inches through Tuesday evening, the Hurricane Center said, adding that flash and urban flooding could occur across the Keys and Florida peninsula. Flash flooding and mudslides are also possible in high terrain in Jamaica and Cuba.
After several postponements, NASA announced Monday that it would roll the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the vehicle assembly building from its launchpad.
“The decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system,” the administration said.
Governor DeSantis, who has declared a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, emphasized the continued uncertainty of the storm’s path.
He said on Monday that tolls were being suspended to help in evacuations, mostly along the west, and cautioned residents to anticipate possible power failures and fuel disruptions. But there was no need to “panic-buy” fuel and water, he said.
Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said on Monday that the Port of Tampa would be shut down, while east coast ports should be open.
He said at the news conference that as of Sunday afternoon the division had 360 trailers loaded with meals and water ready to distribute to residents.
President Biden approved an emergency declaration for 24 Florida counties that will unlock direct federal assistance.
Ian is expected to generate one to three inches of rain in Jamaica, three to six inches in the Cayman Islands, and six to 10 inches in western Cuba, with up to 16 inches possible, the center said.
This rainfall could lead to flash flooding and mudslides in higher terrain areas, particularly in Jamaica and Cuba, forecasters said.
The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, had a relatively quiet start, with only three named storms before Sept. 1 and none during August, the first time that had happened since 1997. Storm activity picked up in early September with Danielle and Earl, which formed within a day of each other. Ian is the ninth named storm of the season.
In early August, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an updated forecast for the rest of the season, which still called for an above-normal level of activity. In it, they predicted that the season — which runs through Nov. 30 — could see 14 to 20 named storms, with six to 10 turning into hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 74 m.p.h.
Three to five of those could strengthen into what NOAA calls major hurricanes — Category 3 or stronger — with winds of at least 111 m.p.h.
Last year, there were 21 named storms, after a record-breaking 30 in 2020. For the past two years, meteorologists have exhausted the list of names used to identify storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, an occurrence that has happened only one other time, in 2005.
The links between hurricanes and climate change have become clearer with each passing year. Data shows that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades. A warming planet can expect stronger hurricanes over time and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms, though the overall number of storms could drop because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.
Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of increased water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; scientists have suggested storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surge — the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.
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