As Hurricane Ian approached Florida's Gulf Coast on Tuesday, residents boarded up their homes, loaded their vehicles, and evacuated to higher ground in anticipation of a potentially lethal storm surge and more than a foot of rain in some parts.
After slamming into Cuba earlier in the day, Ian raced across the southeastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico its route to Florida, leaving the whole country without electricity, causing major evacuations, and flooding fishing villages.
More than 2.5 million Floridians were under evacuation orders or warnings as the storm was expected to make landfall Wednesday evening as a Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane somewhere along the Gulf Coast.
On the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, a Category 3 hurricane has maximum sustained winds of up to 129 miles per hour (208 km per hour). The most recent 8 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) hurricane alert placed Ian's maximum sustained winds at 120 mph (195 km per hour).
According to the National Hurricane Center (NHC), Ian was predicted to make landfall south of Tampa around Sarasota. This region, with its miles of sandy beaches, dozens of resort hotels, and several mobile home parks, is popular among seniors and tourists alike.
"I know I should be terrified, but I'm too busy to be terrified. I simply know we must leave "John O'Leary, a jazz pianist from Tampa, said as he and his wife loaded food, water, and family photos into their car before driving 25 miles (40 km) west to his mother's house in Palm Harbor.
O'Leary, 36, was among the thousands of motorists that evacuated Sarasto districts to avoid a potentially lethal storm surge that, according to predictions, may exceed 12 feet (3.7 meters) in height.
While predictions for where the storm would make landfall remained inaccurate, Governor Ron DeSantis stated that "the impacts are going to be far, far broader than just where the eye of the storm happens to make landfall,"
As a result of a slow-moving storm accumulating high water, DeSantis warned of the possibility of catastrophic flooding comparable to that caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
According to the National Weather Service, Ian could bring as much as 2 feet (0.6 meters) of rain to portions of central Florida. The NHC also issued significant storm surge warnings for almost half the coastline of western Florida, predicting life-threatening coastal flooding of up to 12 feet due to wind-driven high surf.
Kevin Guthrie, director of emergency management in Florida, encouraged individuals in evacuation zones to seek shelter.
"Now is the time to evacuate. Take to the road, "he said.
To alleviate traffic congestion, authorities halted toll collection along major routes in central Florida, the Tampa Bay area, and the Aan lligator Alley stretch of interstate over the Everglades.
Despite evacuation warnings, several locals, such as Vanessa Vazquez, a 50-year-old software engineer from St. Petersburg, said they intended to ride out the storm at home.
"I'm staying put," Vazquez stated. "I have four kitties that I do not wish to stress. Moreover, we have a sturdy home."
If Ian hits Tampa, it will be the first hurricane to make landfall in the region since the 1921 storm near Tarpon Springs.
Enki Research said Tuesday that storm-related damages could range from $38 billion to over $60 billion, based on the most recent calculations.
Closings, Power Outages
DeSantis stated that about 60 school districts in Florida were shuttered Tuesday or anticipated to be closed by Wednesday. Numerous of these schools were classified as hurricane shelters.
Due to the hurricane, commercial airlines canceled around 2,000 flights in the United States.
The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport halted operations at noon, followed by the Tampa International Airport a few hours later. Both airports are located on a vulnerable peninsula east of Tampa Bay.
Tampa Electric warned consumers to be ready for "extended outages." A portion of downtown Tampa on the western border of the city will see a "targeted interruption" of service. This region has been evacuated already.
DeSantis stated that close to 100 evacuation shelters have been established across the state.
"This is a mobile home community, and they really need this shelter," said Fabiola Galvan Leon, a preschool educator serving as a language interpreter for the hundreds of evacuees seeking shelter at Reddick Elementary in Wimauma, Florida, southeast of Tampa.
A group of buyers hurriedly grabbed the last available boxes of water, canned foods, and loaves of bread from the shelves of a neighboring Walmart when the store's shelves were nearly bare.
The Walt Disney Company announced the closure of its Florida theme parks and water parks on Wednesday and Thursday, while the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers relocated to Miami, where they will practice this week before their Sunday matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.