Hurricane Ian: Tampa braced for first major hurricane in 100 years

A resident uses plastic as protection from the rain in Batabano, Cuba. Credit: AP

Hurricane Ian’s rain and winds, which continue to grow in strength have lashed Cuba’s western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people.

It became a major Category 3 storm early on Tuesday and struck a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

The National Hurricane Centre defines a major hurricane as a Category 3 storm or higher, meaning maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph - speeds Hurricane Ian has already surpassed.

Tampa and St. Petersburg are among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane in a century.

Then it will turn northward and slow down over warm Gulf of Mexico waters, and could hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

Officials in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region.

The US National Hurricane Centre said the island’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge.

“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” said senior specialist Daniel Brown.

“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said Monday at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.

Workers remove a boat from the water in the bay of Havana, Cuba. Credit: AP

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

Havana resident Adyz Ladron said the potential for rising water from the storm worries him.

“I am very scared because my house gets completely flooded, with water up to here,” he said, pointing to his chest.

In Havana’s El Fanguito, a poor neighbourhood near the Almendares River, residents were packing up what they could to leave their homes.

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

As Hurricane Ian approaches Florida, shopping carts are left abandoned next to empty shelves that stock bottled water at a supermarket. Credit: AP

As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County in western Florida alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said.

Some of those evacuations were began on Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.

“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water.

Florida residents fill free sand bags at an Orange County park in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian. Credit: AP

Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state-wide emergency and warned that Hurricane Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state’s Gulf Coast.

“You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane," DeSantis said at a news conference. "That’s going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flood events. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.”

DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilised 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighbouring states.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Credit: AP

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorising 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 scheduled Tuesday trip 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 Centre hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.

Flash flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week.

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