Hurricane Ian hits Cuba, targets Florida as possible Cat 4

HAVANA — Rain and strengthening winds from Hurricane Ian battered the western tip of Cuba, where authorities evacuated 50,000 people, as it roared down a path that could see it hit the west coast of Cuba. Florida as a Category 4 hurricane.

Officials in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province set up 55 shelters, rushed emergency personnel and took action to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region ahead of the expected landfall of ‘Ian early Tuesday as a major hurricane. The US National Hurricane Center said the west coast of the island could see up to 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge.

“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, as well as potentially deadly storm surges and heavy rain,” Daniel Brown, senior hurricane center specialist, told The Associated Press.

After passing through Cuba, Ian was expected to strengthen further over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with peak winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) .

On Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be among the likeliest targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

“Please treat this storm seriously. This is the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said Monday during a a press conference on preparations for the storm in Tampa.

In Havana on Monday, fishermen were pulling their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon seaside boulevard, and city workers were unclogging storm drains ahead of the expected rain.

Adyz Ladron, a resident of Havana, said the storm’s potential for rising waters worried him.

“I’m very scared because my house is completely flooded, with water all the way to here,” he said pointing to his chest.

In El Fanguito, Havana, a poor neighborhood near the Almendares River, residents packed what they could to leave their homes.

“I hope we escape this one because it would be our end. We already have so little,” said health worker Abel Rodrigues.

As of 2 a.m. EDT Tuesday (0600 GMT), Ian was moving northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), about 85 miles (136 kilometers) east of the western tip of Cuba, with sustained winds reaching 110 mph (177 km/h).

The National Hurricane Center said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were expected Tuesday morning in western Cuba.

Ian will not linger over Cuba but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, widening and strengthening, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of the Florida,” the hurricane center said.

A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of seawater and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain has been forecast for the Tampa Bay area, with up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in areas isolated. That’s enough water to flood coastal communities.

Up to 300,000 people could be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other places open as shelters.

“We must do everything to protect our residents. Time is running out,” Wise said.

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to pick up sandbags and clean shelves at bottled water stores. Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned Ian could hit large areas of the state, knocking out power and disrupting fuel supplies as he whirled down north off the gulf coast of the state.

“You have a significant storm that could end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said at a press conference. “It’s going to cause a huge storm surge. You’re going to have flooding. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.

DeSantis said the state suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida State National Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a trip planned for Tuesday to Florida because of the storm.

Playing it safe, NASA planned to slowly roll its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the football team is relocating football operations to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers said the team will leave Tampa on Tuesday.

Flash flooding was forecast for much of the Florida peninsula and heavy rain was possible for the southeastern United States later this week. With tropical storm-force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, the watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.

Associated Press contributors include Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Fla., Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla., and Julie Walker in New York.