Hurricane Ian hits Cuba en route to Florida
HAVANA - A strengthening Hurricane Ian’s rain and winds lashed Cuba’s western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.
The storm made landfall early Tuesday in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the island’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet of storm surge.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” hurricane center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.
After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 140 mph.
As of early Tuesday, 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 Monday at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
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 neighborhood 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.
The Hurricane Center said in a 4:30 a.m. EDT update that Ian made landfall in Cuba as it continued to strengthen, with sustained winds of 125 mph. In an update about a half-hour later, the center said Ian was located about 5 miles south of the city of Pinar del Rio, moving north at 12 mph.
The center defines a major hurricane as a Category 3 storm or higher, meaning maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph, and Ian became a Category 3 hurricane earlier Tuesday.
The center said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were occurring Tuesday morning in western Cuba.
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 10 feet of ocean water and 10 inches of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches 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.