Tropical Storm Ian’s uncertain path has all of Florida preparing for a major hurricane

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Its exact path still uncertain, Tropical Storm Ian strengthened Sunday night as it churned in the Caribbean, threatening to arrive in Florida as a hurricane packing powerful winds and dangerous storm surge.

Even as the storm grows stronger – with sustained winds now at 65 mph – there remains “higher than usual” uncertainty over its track and intensity, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The storm is forecast to become a hurricane Monday and strengthen to a major hurricane of Category 3 or higher by Tuesday, the center said.

lan is forecast to grow to hurricane strength when it nears western Cuba Monday morning, potentially reaching Category 2 strength when it makes landfall. “Life-threatening” storm surge and hurricane-force winds are expected, the center said. “Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” forecasters added.

The storm is expected to produce “heavy rainfall, flash flooding, and possible mudslides” in areas of higher terrain, particularly over Jamaica and Cuba.

Models project different scenarios about where it could make landfall in Florida, and how strong it could be by midweek. As of Sunday, meteorologists predicted the storm will peak at Category 4 strength over the eastern Gulf of Mexico, then weaken before reaching Florida.

Regardless of lan’s exact track and intensity, Floridians are being asked to prepare as they face the risk of dangerous storm surge, strong winds, and heavy rainfall along the west coast and the Florida Panhandle, the hurricane center said.

With flash and urban flooding possible across the Florida Keys and the Florida Peninsula through the middle of the week, a tropical storm warning was issued for the lower Florida Keys from Seven Mile Bridge southward to Key West.

Tropical Storm Ian is seen near the coast of Cuba in this satellite image taken September 25, 2022.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis activated the National Guard Sunday morning, saying though the path of the storm is still uncertain, the impacts will be broadly felt throughout the state. State and federal disaster declarations were made over the weekend.

One model is projecting Ian to make landfall in the Tampa Bay region while another model is projecting landfall into the Panhandle, DeSantis said.

“Everyone in Florida is going to feel the impacts of the storm,” director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, Kevin Guthrie, told CNN Sunday.

A major concern is how quickly the storm can intensify, stressed Jason Dunion, director of NOAA’s hurricane research field program.

“The storm can increase in speed 35 miles per hour in one day,” Dunion said. “You can go from a tropical storm to a Category 1, or Category 1 to a Category 3 in just that 24-hour period. That makes it especially important for folks to pay attention to this storm the next couple of days.”

As the storm approaches, Floridians are being asked to stock up on supplies like radios, water, canned food and medication for at least seven days, and familiarize themselves with evacuation routes.

Residents in Tampa and other areas were seen lining up for sandbags as they prepared for the storm Sunday.

Filling up bags of sand alongside other community members in Orange County, Jose Lugo told CNN affiliate WFTV he knows what can happen if the worst hits.

“It’s better to be prepared than sorry later,” Lugo said. “I was in Puerto Rico visiting my parents a couple days before Fiona hit. I was helping them out, and now I’m here helping myself and everybody else.”

Cities and counties throughout the state are also preparing.

Shoppers wait in line outside a retail warehouse as people rush to prepare for Tropical Storm Ian, in Kissimmee, Florida, on September 25, 2022.

Officials in Tallahassee, the state’s capital, are working to remove debris and make sure the city’s power lines and stormwater systems are clear. “We’re doing everything we can on the front end of the storm to prepare and secure our infrastructure,” Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Kenneth Welch said his city on Florida’s Gulf Coast is in a vulnerable position. “Even a tropical storm can knock our power grid down for an extended amount of time. We’re educating to be prepared and to plan,” Welch told CNN.

No matter what strength the storm hits the state, Florida is preparing for a dangerous storm surge, Guthrie said, which is when the force of a hurricane or storm pushes ocean water onshore.

“We could see a situation of a Category 4 storm surge and Category 1 or 2 landfall,” Guthrie said.

Officials in Cape Coral, a city in southwest Florida known for its many canals, were particularly concerned about storm surge and winds.

“Right now, of course we are like many other cities, we’re preparing for the worst; hoping for the best,” Cape Coral mayor John Gunter told CNN.

In Hillsborough County, Ian’s approach left the school district with “no choice” but to close all schools as campuses transform into storm shelters, according to Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach issued a mandatory evacuation order Saturday and canceled classes Monday due to the approaching storm.

Preparations were also underway in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the activation of the State Operations Center on Monday “to prepare for any potential impact from Tropical Storm Ian later in the week.”

“Though models suggest it will weaken before making landfall on Thursday, and its ultimate route is still undetermined, Ian could result in severe weather damage for large parts of Georgia,” said a news release from the governor’s office.

Dunion said ocean temperatures are currently extremely warm, including at great depths below the surface, and this means “a lot of fuel to energize the storms.”

“You can get a storm to rapidly intensify pretty quickly and a lot of our models are suggesting we will indeed see that rapid intensification over the next couple of days,” Dunion said.

Ken Graham, assistant administrator for weather services at NOAA, told CNN rainfall is a leading cause of fatalities in strong tropical systems.

“When you close your eyes and think of a hurricane, you think about the wind, but it is the water that really is hurting people and that is what we really need to talk about. And it is increasing with climate change,” Graham said.

Even the storm hits as a Category 2, it can still produce significant storm surge, Graham said. “You can actually have more people impacted by a storm when it expands like that. So people can’t let their guard down, despite the category,” he added.

“So many people judge the current storm with what they have experienced in the past and the reality is every storm is completely different,” Graham said.

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