Hurricane Ian knocked out power across Cuba on Tuesday, then continued on a collision course with Florida over warm Gulf waters amid expectations it would strengthen into a catastrophic Category 4 storm. Florida officials ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate ahead of the storm’s expected landfall on Wednesday.
Cuba’s electrical grid collapsed after the storm tore across its western half, a failure which Lázaro Guerra, technical director of the national power company, said was in part because of the storm, state-run media reported.
Guerra said the Electric Union of Cuba would work through the night and early Wednesday to restore power.
Ian made landfall at 4:30 a.m. ET Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, relocated 50,000 people, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in the nation’s main tobacco-growing region.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Cuba suffered “significant wind and storm surge impacts” when the hurricane struck with top sustained winds of 205 km/h.
Ian is expected to get even stronger over the warm Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of more than 200 km/h as it approaches the southwest coast of Florida.
Hurricane-force winds are expected across the southern peninsula Wednesday, when the eye is predicted to make landfall. Damage is expected across a wide area of Florida, though it is not yet clear where Ian would crash ashore.
Preparing for outages
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged people to prepare for extended power outages and to get out of the storm’s potential path.
“It is a big storm, it is going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in,” DeSantis told a news conference. “And you’re going to end up with really significant storm surge and you’re going to end up with really significant flood events. And this is the kind of storm surge that is life threatening.”
DeSantis said nearly 100 shelters had been opened by Tuesday afternoon, with more expected. He said most buildings in Florida are strong enough to withstand wind, but the 2.5 million people who have been told to evacuate face the greatest danger from flooding.
Hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several nursing homes around Tampa, on Florida’s Gulf coast, where hospitals were also moving some patients. Airports along the coast closed. Busch Gardens in Tampa closed at least through Tuesday, while several Orlando-area theme parks, including Disney World and Sea World, planned to close Wednesday and Thursday.
Playing it safe, NASA also rolled its moon rocket from the launch pad to its hangar at Kennedy Space Center, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.
Gil Gonzalez boarded his windows with plywood Tuesday and had sandbags ready to protect his Tampa home from flooding. He and his wife had stocked up on bottled water and packed flashlights, battery packs for their cellphones and a camp stove with a large propane burner as they got ready to flee.
“All the prized possessions, we’ve put them upstairs in a friend’s house and nearby, and we’ve got the car loaded,” Gonzalez said. “I think we’re ready.”
‘It’s a monster’
Ian’s forward movement was expected to slow over the Gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger. The hurricane warning expanded Tuesday to cover roughly 350 kilometres of Florida’s west coast. The area includes Fort Myers as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg, which could get their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
Forecasters said the storm surge could reach 3.6 metres if it peaks at high tide. Rainfall near the area of landfall could top 46 centimetres.
“It’s a monster and then there’s the confusion of the path,” said Renee Correa, who headed inland to Orlando from the Tampa area with her daughter and Chihuahua. “Tampa has been lucky for 100 years, but it’s a little scary now.”
Kelly Johnson was preparing to hunker down at her home two blocks from the beach in Dunedin, west of Tampa. She said she would escape to the second floor if sea water surges inland, and had a generator ready in case she loses power.
“I’m a Floridian, and we know how to deal with hurricanes,” Johnson said. “This is part of living in paradise — knowing that once in a while these storms come at you.”
Forecasters warned the hurricane will be felt across a large area as it plows across Florida with an anticipated turn northward. Flash floods were possible across the whole state, and portions of Florida’s east coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approach the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of Georgia and South Carolina also could see flooding rains into the weekend.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp pre-emptively declared a state of emergency Tuesday, ordering 500 National Guard troops to be placed on standby to respond as needed.
As the storm’s centre moved into the Gulf, scenes of destruction emerged in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. The owner of the premier Finca Robaina cigar producer posted photos on social media showing wood-and-thatch roofs smashed to the ground, greenhouses in rubble and wagons overturned.
“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” wrote Hirochi Robaina, grandson of the operation’s founder.
State media published photos showing broad floodwaters flowing through the town of San Juan y Martinez.
Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage at the main hospital in Pinar del Rio city, tweeting photos of collapsed ceilings, toppled trees and debris flung about its property. No deaths were reported.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol announced it had postponed a hearing scheduled for Wednesday. The committee decided at the last minute to delay what was likely to be its final investigative hearing as it became clear that Hurricane Ian was churning on a collision course toward Florida.
“We’re praying for the safety of all those in the storm’s path,” committee chairman Bennie Thompson and vice-chair Liz Cheney, said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “The Select Committee’s investigation goes forward and we will soon announce a date for the postponed proceedings.”
U.S. President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to co-ordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. FEMA has strategically positioned generators, millions of meals and millions of litres of water, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Biden sought to assure mayors in the storm’s path that Washington will meet their needs and urged residents to heed to local officials’ orders.
“Your safety is more important than anything,” he said.