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Hurricane Ian now Category 2, targeting Cuba, Florida's Gulf Coast

Alex Harris and Michelle Marchante
Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — A large swath of Florida’s Gulf Coast is under hurricane and storm surge watches and warnings Monday from Category 2 Hurricane Ian, which whipped up overnight and is expected to turn into a major storm as it heads toward a potential first landfall in western Cuba.

The latest forecast at 5 p.m. Eastern time from the National Hurricane Center showed Hurricane Ian crossing north of Tampa Bay as a powerful Category 3 storm and making landfall in the Big Bend as a Category 1 or 2 storm — pushing storm surge that could reach as high as 10 feet in spots.

But regardless of any future small shifts in the track, which forecasters warned could continue for the next few days, much of Florida’s Gulf Coast, from Naples northward, faces a major risk of coastal flooding.

The Tampa Bay metro area, home to about 3 million people, is particularly vulnerable to coastal flooding from hurricanes.

Mandatory evacuation orders are now in place for the riskiest spots in Tampa Bay, Pinellas and Charlotte Counties to the north and Manatee County to the south, with voluntary evacuations also in place for areas with slightly less risk.

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More orders will almost certainly follow for other parts of the west coast, including Levy County, site of potential landfall under the current track. Levy is sparsely populated, with just over 40,000 people. All counties in Florida remain under a state of emergency.

Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended some tolls in the Tampa Bay area, Polk County, parts of the Panhandle and Alligator Alley.

Southeast Florida is no longer in the cone, but the Lower Keys also remain under a tropical storm warning and the National Hurricane Center warned the region will see heavy rains this week, as well as gusty squalls from the strong storm.

New tropical storm watches were issued Monday evening north of Tampa Bay, and Tampa Bay and areas to the south were upgraded to hurricane warnings, including the Dry Tortugas.

Shoppers at the Costco store in Altamonte Springs, Fla. grab bottles of water from the last pallet in stock on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022, as Central Floridians prepare for the impact of Hurricane Ian. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via AP)

Overnight, Ian became a well-organized hurricane, and forecasters expect it will rapidly intensify to a monster — Category 3 — on Monday before crossing Cuba’s west coast early Tuesday.

In a Monday afternoon news conference in Miami, Deanne Criswell, top administrator for FEMA, urged Floridians to evacuate if asked and to keep a close eye on the storm.

“We are ready,” she said. “We will be here through the response.”

As of the 5 p.m. update, Hurricane Ian was a Category 2 storm about 155 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Its maximum sustained winds had started to pick up, now reaching 100 mph, and its wind field expanded to 115 miles from the center. It was heading north-northwest at 13 mph.

Ian’s forecast track, which shifted slightly east again in the latest update, showed the hurricane passing near or west of the Cayman Islands, and then near or over western Cuba Monday night and early Tuesday as a Category 3 storm.

Starting Monday morning the storm hit a patch of ocean with super warm water and low wind shear — everything it needs to get much stronger, quickly.

Forecasters are watching for rapid intensification, which is when a storm gains at least 30 mph in maximum sustained winds over a 24 hour period, on Monday. They expect Ian to menace Cuba as a strong Category 3 early Tuesday.

Favorable conditions continue Tuesday, and Ian is expected to strengthen into a Category 4 once it’s over the Gulf of Mexico, with maximum sustained winds ranging from 130 to 140 mph, as it starts moving north toward Florida’s Gulf Coast. Ian is forecast to pass a few hundred miles west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday before approaching the west-central coast of Florida on Wednesday.

The hurricane center notes that Ian could see some weakening during this time, down to a Category 1 or 2, due to more intense wind shear. However, it’s also expected to slow down, which could lead to “significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida.” The 11 a.m. advisory shows Ian possibly weakening back into a Category 2 storm while passing west of Clearwater and making landfall somewhere along Florida’s west coast, likely on Thursday or Friday.

Exactly where Ian will come ashore is still uncertain. Models have closed in on the region from the middle of Florida’s Panhandle to just south of Tampa Bay, but there’s still a decent amount of spread in the potential paths.

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The 5 p.m. update inched the track east once again.

“The latest track guidance has come into better agreement on this scenario, although it is noted that small deviations to the shore-parallel track could have large implications on the impacts at particular locations along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said in the evening discussion.

The biggest risk that Hurricane Ian brings to Florida — no matter where it makes landfall — is storm surge.Florida’s west coast, especially Tampa Bay, is one of the most vulnerable spots in the nation to storm surge. The scenario currently forecast, a powerful storm passing just offshore to the north, is one of the most dangerous setups.

“Do not be fooled by the forecast of weaker winds. The storm surge can still be massive — higher than anything seen in modern times,” tweeted Bryan Norcross, hurricane specialist at Fox Weather.

The hurricane center is forecasting 5 to 10 feet of storm surge in Tampa Bay, with those totals slightly decreasing further south down the west coast. The Keys, including the Dry Tortugas, could see 2 to 4 feet. And that includes this week’s king tides, the annual highest tides of the year.

“Why this big range of 5 to 10 feet? Because if the center stays a little bit offshore, maybe closer to 5, we have to prepare you — and you have to prepare you,” said Jamie Rhome, acting director the National Hurricane Center.

Another complicating factor that could worsen the storm surge and rain associated with Hurricane Ian is its speed, which is expected to drop to around 5 mph when it nears Tampa Bay.

Ben Noll, a meteorologist with New Zealand’s National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, tweeted Monday that Ian’s “forward speed will slow to a crawl as it approaches the state, prolonging wind, surge & rain impacts.”

And while South Florida remains outside of Ian’s cone of concern, the National Weather Service in Miami says the region is still expected to feel it, with storm surge flooding, heavy rain, gusty winds and isolated tornadoes possible through Thursday.

Forecasters say tropical storm conditions could begin Tuesday in the lower Keys, which are under a tropical storm warning, and in Florida’s west coast, which is under a hurricane warning from Englewood to the Anclote River, including the Tampa Bay area. Hurricane conditions could begin along Florida’s west coast Wednesday.

The hurricane center expects Ian will bring 4 to 6 inches of rain in the Florida Keys through Thursday, with other parts of Florida possibly seeing 4 to 8 inches of rain. The central-west part of Florida could see 6 to 12 inches of rain through Thursday, with some areas possibly seeing up to 20 inches of rain. Southeast Florida and coastal southwest Florida could see 4 to 6 inches of rain and up to 10 inches in spot spots.

“Considerable flooding impacts are possible mid-to-late week in central Florida given already saturated antecedent conditions, and flash and urban flooding is possible with rainfall across the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula through midweek,” the hurricane center said. “Limited flood impacts and rises on area streams and rivers are possible over northern Florida and portions of the Southeast mid-to-late week.”

Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said the district is expecting “significant rainfall” this week and already began lowering its canals to make room. He said that Hurricane Ian’s rainfall does not pose an immediate threat to overtop Lake Okeechobee, which is lower than usual for this time of year due to drought conditions.

“Lake Okeechobee is at a good level, such that the Corps has not had to do any water drawdowns ahead of the storm,” he said.

HURRICANE IAN WATCHES/WARNINGS

  • Storm surge watch extended north along Florida’s west coast to the Anclote River.
  • Storm surge warning in effect for the Anclote River southward to Flamingo and the Dry Tortugas.
  • Hurricane warning in effect for: The Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa; Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay and the Dry Tortugas.
  • Tropical storm warning in effect for: Flamingo to Englewood, Lower Florida Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge west to Key West and the Cuban provinces of La Habana, Mayabeque, and Matanzas.
  • A hurricane watch in effect for North of Anclote River to the Suwannee River and Bonita Beach to Englewood.
  • Tropical storm watch in effect for the Florida Keys from Seven Mile Bridge to the Channel 5 Bridge, North of the Suwanee River to Indian Pass, Jupiter Inlet to Altamaha Sound and Lake Okeechobee.
  • The hurricane center says additional watches may be required later Monday for the west coast of Florida.