Evacuations were underway along Florida's Gulf Coast Monday as Hurricane Ian formed and was quickly intensifying and expected to become a dangerous Category 4 hurricane before possible landfall later in the week.
Ian's maximum sustained winds increased to 115 mph as it moved north-northwest at 13 mph about 150 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said Monday.
Forecasters said Ian will likely become a major hurricane by the time it reaches western Cuba overnight Monday or early Tuesday. Ian is forecast to reach its peak intensity as a Category 4 hurricane over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico before expected landfall in Florida.
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"Obviously at this point, we want everyone to be safe, you have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Monday.
A hurricane warning was issued Monday for Florida's west coast from Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay, and the Dry Tortugas. A hurricane watch was issued from the Anclote River to the Suwannee River and from Bonita Beach to Englewood.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for the lower Florida Keys from Seven Mile Bridge westward to Key West, and from Flamingo to Englewood. A tropical storm watch was in effect for Florida Keys from Seven Mile Bridge to the Channel 5 Bridge, Lake Okeechobee, north of the Suwannee River to Indian Pass, and Jupiter Inlet to Altamaha Sound.
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A storm surge warning was in effect for Tampa Bay and the Anclote River southward to Flamingo. A storm surge watch was also issued for the Florida Keys from the Card Sound Bridge westward to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas, Florida Bay, the Aucilla River to Anclote River, Altamaha Sound to the Flagler/Volusia County Line, and the Saint Johns River.
Flash flooding and urban flooding was possible with rainfall across the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula through mid-week, NHC forecasters said. A few tornadoes are possible late Monday night and into Tuesday across the Florida Keys and the southern and central Florida peninsula.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a Monday news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said at a news conference.
Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters. “We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
A hurricane warning was issued for the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio, and Artemisa. A tropical storm warning was issued for the Cuban provinces of La Habana, Mayabeque, and Matanzas.
Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations Monday as Ian gained strength on approach to Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. Cuba also was shutting down its train system ahead of the worst weather.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” U.S. National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press early Monday.
On the forecast track, the center of Ian was expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands Monday. Ian will then move near or over western Cuba Monday night and early Tuesday and emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.
Ian is then expected to move on a path to the Gulf Coast of Florida, with the center staying to the west of the Florida Keys, according to the latest advisory.
There was increasing confidence that life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds over portions of western Cuba could occur beginning late Monday. Up to 16 inches of rain could fall in parts of Cuba, according to the NHC.
Monroe County Emergency Management was working to advise residents on specific details about the impacts from Ian.
In order to assist residents, Monroe County Government offices are scheduled to be open on Monday. Authorities are asking people, both tourists and locals to continue keeping an eye on this storm. Airports are also scheduled to be open and fully operational and schools are scheduled to be in session on Monday, a news release from the county said.
The main message officials are sending out right now is don’t lower your guard just yet.
"We’re expecting the winds, definitely the winds and flooding," Lt. Lee Placido said.
DeSantis activated the state's National Guard on Sunday ahead of the storm's expected impact later in the week.
The governor's declaration frees up emergency protective funding to address potential damage from storm surge, flooding, dangerous winds and other weather conditions throughout the state.
DeSantis expanded the declaration of a state of emergency Saturday to include the entire state.
"It's important to point out to folks that the path of this is still uncertain. The impacts will be broad throughout the state of Florida," DeSantis said at a news conference Sunday. "So from the Tampa Bay area all the way up to Escambia County along Florida's Gulf Coast you could potentially see it make landfall in any of those places as of right now."
President Joe Biden has postponed a trip to South Florida next week due to Tropical Storm Ian, the White House announced Saturday.
Biden approved an emergency declaration for the state of Florida Saturday due to Ian, the White House said in a statement.
The declaration authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts resulting from Ian.