Ian pummeled western Cuba as a strong hurricane on Tuesday, with nothing stopping it from intensifying into a catastrophic Category 4 storm before it reaches Florida, where authorities ordered the evacuation of 2.5 million people before may his eye hit the ground on Wednesday.
Ian made landfall at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, US Eastern Time, in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río, where authorities set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, dispatched emergency personnel and took measures to protect crops. It is the main tobacco producing region of Cuba.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said there were “significant wind and storm surge impacts” in western Cuba on Tuesday morning. Ian’s maximum sustained winds were 125 mph (205 km/h) and storm surges of up to 14 feet (4.3 meters) were forecast along the Cuban coast.
Ian is forecast to further strengthen over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, reaching peak winds of 140 mph (225 km/h) as it approaches the southwestern coast of Florida. Tropical storm force winds were expected in the southern peninsula Tuesday night, reaching hurricane force Wednesday morning.
“Right now we are targeting West Central Florida as the primary impact area,” hurricane specialist Andy Latto told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said about 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders. He warned that damage is expected over a wide area, regardless of where Ian’s vortex makes landfall. He urged people to prepare for blackouts and to get out of the path of the meteor.
“Having five to 10 feet of storm surge is something you don’t want to be involved with,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “And Mother Nature has issued a very scary warning.”
The NHC expanded its hurricane warning to include Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River. Fort Myers is in the hurricane belt, and Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared likely to have their first direct hit by a Category 3 or larger hurricane since 1921.
“People on the barrier islands who choose not to leave do so at their own risk,” Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais warned early Tuesday. “The best they can do is leave.”
As Ian’s eye passed over western Cuba, with tropical storm-force winds extending 185 kilometers (115 miles), Cuba’s capital was receiving rain and strong gusts of wind Tuesday morning. Havana residents were very concerned about flooding prior to the storm. Workers unclogged storm drains and fishermen pulled their boats out of the water.
Adyz Ladrón, a 35-year-old Havana resident, expressed concern about the possibility of rising water levels. “(I’m) scared because the whole house is flooded, the water is high,” she said, as she placed her hand at her chest level.
Ian’s forward motion was expected to slow over the Gulf of Mexico, allowing the hurricane to grow wider and stronger before it brings wind and water to the west coast of Florida. Forecasters said the storm surge could reach a height of 3 meters (10 feet) if it peaks during high tide. Rainfall could total 41 centimeters (16 inches) with up to 61 centimeters (24 inches) in isolated areas. Coastal communities could be inundated.
As many as 300,000 people could be evacuated from low-lying Hillsborough County alone, County Manager Bonnie Wise said. On Monday afternoon some evacuations were already beginning in the most vulnerable parts and some schools and other places set up shelters.
“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise stated.
In Cuba, strong winds damaged one of the most important tobacco farms from which the leaves are extracted to roll Robaina cigars, located in San Juan y Martínez.
“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” Hirochi Robaina, owner of the farm, wrote on his Facebook account.