HAVANA – Hurricane Ian swept through western Cuba like a major hurricane on Tuesday, knocking out the entire country and leaving 11 million people without electricity before heading on a collision course with Florida over warm Gulf waters amid expectations that it would amplify into a catastrophic Category 4 thunderstorm.
Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials established 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people and took measures to protect crops in the country’s main tobacco region. The US National Hurricane Center said Cuba had “significant wind and storm surge effects” when the hurricane struck with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kmh).
Ian was expected to get even stronger over the warm Gulf of Mexico, reaching a top wind of 109 mph as it approached Florida’s southwest coast, where 2.5 million people had to evacuate.
Tropical storm winds were expected across the southern peninsula late Tuesday, reaching hurricane strength on Wednesday — when the eye was forecast to make landfall. With tropical storm winds extending 140 miles (225 kilometers) from downtown Ian, damage was expected across a large area of Florida.
It was not yet clear exactly where Ian would crash. The exact track could determine how severe the storm surge is for Tampa Bay, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. Landing south of the bay could make the impact “much less bad,” McNoldy said.
Gil Gonzalez boarded up his windows on Tuesday and had sandbags ready to protect his home in Tampa. He and his wife had stocked up on water bottles and packed flashlights, cell phone batteries and a camping stove before evacuating.
“All the precious belongings, we put them upstairs in a friend’s house and nearby, and we loaded the car,” Gonzalez said as he walked out. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis urged people to prepare for extended power outages and to steer clear of the storm’s potential path.
“It’s a big storm. It will raise a lot of water as it comes in,” DeSantis told a news conference in Sarasota, a coastal town of 57,000 that could be affected. “And you’re going to end up with really significant storm surges and you’re going to end up with really significant floods. And this is the kind of storm surge that is life-threatening.”
He said about 30,000 utilities have already been installed in the state, but it could be days before they can safely reach some of the downed power lines.
“This thing is the real deal,” DeSantis said. “It’s a big, big storm.”
DeSantis said nearly 100 shelters had opened Tuesday afternoon, with more expected. He said most Florida buildings are strong enough to withstand wind, but the 2.5 million people who must evacuate are most at risk from flooding.
Hundreds of residents were evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients. Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West closed. Busch Gardens in Tampa were closed before the storm, while several theme parks in the Orlando area, including Disney World and Sea World, were set to close Wednesday and Thursday.
NASA rolled its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, delaying the test flight for weeks.
Ian’s forward motion was expected to slow over the Gulf, making the hurricane wider and stronger. The hurricane warning extended to about 350 kilometers off Florida’s west coast on Tuesday. The area includes Fort Myers as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg, which could get their first direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921.
Forecasters said the storm surge barrier could reach 12 feet (3.6 meters) when it peaks at high tide. Precipitation near the landfall area can reach up to 18 inches (46 centimeters). They also said there was a threat of isolated tornadoes coming from the storm’s approach over Florida.
“It’s a monster and then there’s the confusion of the trail,” said Renee Correa, who headed inland to Orlando with her daughter and Chihuahua from the Tampa area. “Tampa has been lucky for 100 years, but now it’s a little scary.”
Kelly Johnson was preparing to sit down at her home two blocks from the beach in Dunedin, west of Tampa. She said she would escape to the second floor if the seawater flows inland, and have a generator if the power goes out.
“I’m a Floridian and we know how to deal with hurricanes,” Johnson said. “This is part of living in paradise – knowing that these storms come at you every once in a while.”
Forecasters warned the hurricane will be felt over a wide area as it plows through Florida with an expected turn to the north. Flooding was possible across the state, and parts of Florida’s east coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approached the Atlantic. Flooding rains could also fall over the weekend in parts of Georgia and South Carolina.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a pre-emptive state of emergency on Tuesday and ordered 500 National Guard troops on standby to respond if needed.
As the storm’s center moved into the Gulf, devastating scenes ensued in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. The owner of leading cigar producer Finca Robaina posted photos on social media of shattered wooden and thatched roofs, ruined greenhouses and overturned cars.
“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” wrote Hirochi Robaina, grandson of the operation’s founder.
Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage to the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Rio and tweeted photos of collapsed ceilings and fallen trees. No deaths were reported.
Speaking at the White House, President Joe Biden said his administration sent hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees to Florida and wanted to assure mayors in the storm’s path that Washington will meet their needs. He urged residents to heed the orders of local officials.
“Your safety is more important than anything,” he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden spoke to DeSantis later Tuesday night about federal steps to help Florida prepare for the storm and that both are committed to close coordination.