By Tom Ozimek
Forecasters say Hurricane Ian has strengthened to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm as it nears Florida’s west coast, with warnings of catastrophic storm surge, screaming winds, destructive waves, heavy rainfall, and life-threatening flooding.
In a series of early morning advisories on Sept. 28, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said that Hurricane Ian was “rapidly intensifying” and that sustained winds have been recorded of up to 155 mph.
“Ian has strengthened into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane,” the NHC said in one of the warnings.
Conditions along the southwest Florida coast were “rapidly deteriorating,” NHC said in another one of the advisories, while another warned that the hurricane is expected to cause “catastrophic” weather impacts in the Florida peninsula.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a briefing at 7:30 a.m. EDT that Hurricane Ian was located around 80 miles south-southwest of Charlotte County and that it was moving north-northeast at around 10 mph.
“It is now a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said, adding that the potentially deadly weather formation was “knocking on the door of a Category 5 storm.”
Landfall is expected in southwest Florida later on Wednesday, DeSantis said, adding that the hurricane would likely exit the northeast Florida coast probably sometime on Thursday.
“The current track has the storm making landfall in Charlotte County,” the governor added.
‘Beginning in the Next Few Hours’
“Catastrophic wind damage is expected along the southwestern coast of Florida beginning in the next few hours where the core of Ian makes landfall,” NHC warned in a 7 a.m. EDT advisory.
A storm surge described as “catastrophic” is expected somewhere along the southwest Florida coastline from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor, NHC warned.
Urging residents to follow all evacuation orders, NHC said the storm surge is expected to bring inundation of 12 to 16 feet above ground level along the southwest Florida coastline, along with “destructive waves.”
Heavy rainfall is expected to spread across the Florida peninsula on Wednesday and into Thursday, the agency warned.
“Widespread, life-threatening catastrophic flooding is expected across portions of central Florida,” with “considerable” flooding in northern and southern Florida, as well as southeastern Georgia and coastal South Carolina, NHC warned.
Cuba Without Power
Hurricane Ian on Tuesday battered the western tip of Cuba, bringing down the electricity grid and leaving the entire island without power.
As the storm built steam, Florida residents rushed to board up their homes, stash 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 Tuesday with his wife, son, dog, and two kittens seeking a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando. “We live in a high risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”
Nair and his family were among at least 2.5 million Florida residents ordered to evacuate in anticipation of a powerful storm surge, high winds, and flooding.
Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Key West closed. Disney World theme parks and Sea World in Orlando all closed ahead of the storm.
Evacuation orders have already been issued for areas along the western Florida coastline. Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders are in effect in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Charlotte, Collier, Hernando, Sarasota, Pasco, and Manatee counties.
‘Much Different Storm’
DeSantis said on Tuesday that Hurricane Ian is likely to bring “really historic storm surge and flooding potential.”
“If you’re looking at those places in Fort Myers, Charlotte County, Sarasota—the storm surge that you’re going to see generated from this is going to far eclipse what we saw” when Hurricane Charley, also a Category 4 storm, hit Florida in 2004, DeSantis said.
Hurricane Ian is a “much different storm,” DeSantis warned.
Jack Phillips and The Associated Press contributed to this report.