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Florida, Cuba brace for onslaught of Hurricane Ian

Category 2 Hurricane Ian has started lashing Cuba, as the US state of Florida steps up preparations before Ian’s expected arrival on Wednesday.

September 27, 2022
27 September 2022

Hurricane Ian starts hitting Cuba

Hurricane Ian has begun pounding Cuba’s south coast as officials rush to evacuate residents, secure boats and batten down homes amid warnings of a life-threatening storm surge.

The fast-growing storm is centred about 250 kilometres southeast of Cabo San Antonio, in far western Cuba, but has jumped in intensity, with sustained winds of 155 km/h making it a Category 2 hurricane.

Waves kick up under a dark sky along the shore of Batabano, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

“Devastating wind damage is possible where the core of Ian moves across western Cuba,” the US-based National Hurricane Center said.

The storm is forecast to become a Category 3 or greater and barrel north to the Florida coast, where residents are stockpiling supplies and filling sandbags.

Residents of Batabano, on Cuba’s south coast, worked with fewer resources than in Florida as the storm closed in, threatening the fishing village of precarious wooden and concrete block houses metres from the roiling sea.

Workers remove a boat from the water in the bay of Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Milexsy Duran)

“We are here saving human lives, going house to house, taking out the elderly and children,” local official Suleika Roche said.

The storm is set to plow north across the island as it advances into the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasts put its track well west of the Cuban capital of Havana, where a direct hit could cause catastrophic damage to antiquated infrastructure.

Cuba is already suffering an economic crisis that has led to long lines for food, fuel and medicine, and regular countrywide blackouts. Most grocery store shelves have been largely bare for months, complicating preparations for the storm.

Cuba’s government called off train and bus travel across the western half of the island ahead of the storm. 

Officials were also monitoring ageing dams, many of which were already nearing capacity before the storm.

Forecasters said once Ian left western Cuba, the storm could make landfall north of Tampa Bay early on Friday or turn northwest toward Florida’s Panhandle.

Both Cuba and Florida have in recent years seen wetter, windier and more intense hurricanes, which some experts attribute to climate change.

There is also evidence that climate change is causing storms to travel more slowly, dumping more water in one place.

Florida next in line

Emergency Management Director Cathie Perkins references a map indicating where storm surge would impact parts of Florida. (Martha Asencio-Rhine/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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

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

Tracking Hurricane Ian

On Monday afternoon, Ian was moving northwest a 20 km/h, about 250km southeast of the western tip of Cuba, with top sustained winds increasing to 155 km/h.

The center of the hurricane passed to the west of the Cayman Islands, but no major damage was reported there Monday, and residents were going back into the streets as the winds died down.

“We seem to have dodged the bullet” Grand Cayman resident Gary Hollins said. “I am a happy camper.”

Ian won’t linger over Cuba, but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said.

A surge of up to three meters of ocean water and 25cm of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 38cm in isolated areas. That’s enough water to inundate coastal communities.

As many as 300,000 people may 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 locations opening as shelters.

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

Residents of Orange County fill sandbags at Baldwin Park to protect their homes in preparation of Hurricane Ian. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. Governor Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned that 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 mobilized 5000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2000 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 scheduled Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.

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

NASA is moving its moon rocket at the Kennedy Space Center.(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Flash flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 185km from Ian’s center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.

Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St Petersburg, said in a briefing that although no one will be forced to leave, mandatory evacuation orders are expected to begin on Tuesday.

“What it means is, we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t do it, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.

Zones to be evacuated include all along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it. St Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders.

“This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.

The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have survival plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.

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