By CRISTIANA MESQUITA and CURT ANDERSON
HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ian grew stronger as it swept toward Cuba on Wednesday on a trail that would hit Florida’s west coast like a major hurricane.
Ian was predicted to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph (225 kph) over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Florida .
On Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg looked like 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 an exercise,” Timothy Dudley, director of Hillsborough County Emergency Management, told a news conference about storm preparations in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba evacuated 50,000 people in Pinar del Rio province, sent medical and emergency services, and took measures to protect food and other crops in warehouses, according to state media.
“Cuba expects extreme hurricane-force winds, including life-threatening storm surges and heavy rainfall,” senior specialist Daniel Brown of the US National Hurricane Center told The Associated Press.
The hurricane center predicted that areas on Cuba’s west coast could see storm surge as high as 4.3 meters (4.3 meters) Monday evening or early Tuesday.
In Havana, fishermen pulled their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon, the coastal boardwalk, and city workers unclog storm drains for the expected rain.
Havana resident Adyz Ladron, 35, said he is concerned about the potential for rising water from the storm.
“I’m very scared because my house will be completely submerged, with water up to here,” he said, pointing to his chest.
In El Fanguito, a poor neighborhood near Havana’s Almendares River, residents were packing what they could to leave their homes, many of which had been damaged by previous storms.
“I hope we escape this, because it would mean our end. We already have so little,” said health worker Abel Rodrigues, 54.
On Monday afternoon, Ian moved northwest at 13 mph (20 km/h), about 155 miles (250 km) southeast of Cuba’s western tip, with sustained winds increasing to 100 mph (155 km/h).
The center of the hurricane moved to the west of the Cayman Islands, but no major damage was reported there on Monday, and residents took to the streets again when the wind died down.
“We seem to have dodged the bullet,” said Grand Cayman resident Gary Hollins. “I’m a happy camper.”
Ian will not hover over Cuba, but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, which is broadening and stronger, “which will have the potential to cause significant wind and storm surge effects along Florida’s west coast,” the hurricane center said.
A wave of up to 3 meters of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted over the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in remote areas. That’s enough water to flood coastal communities.
As many as 300,000 people could be evacuated in the low-lying areas of Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations began Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening up as shelters.
“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
Floridians queued for hours in Tampa collecting bags of sand and clearing store shelves with bottled water. Governor Ron DeSantis declared a statewide state of emergency, warning that Ian could strike large swathes of the state, cut power and cut fuel supplies as it swirls north along the state’s Gulf Coast.
“You have a significant storm that could eventually become a Category 4 hurricane,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “That is going to cause a huge storm surge. You get floods. You will have many different effects.”
DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and has mobilized 5,000 Florida State Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency and authorized the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster response and provide assistance to protect life and property. The president has postponed a planned Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.
Playing it safe, NASA planned to slowly roll its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, delaying the test flight for weeks.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the soccer team is moving soccer operations to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Buccaneers said the team will leave Tampa on Tuesday and move to Miami-Dade County. The Buccaneers are expected to practice starting Wednesday at the Miami Dolphins’ training complex in Miami Gardens, Florida, and continue preparations this week as needed.
Flash flooding was forecast for much of the Florida peninsula, with a chance of heavy rainfall in the southeastern United States later this week. With tropical storm winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from downtown Ian, Watches covered the Florida Keys as far as Lake Okeechobee.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that while no one will be forced to leave, mandatory evacuation orders will begin on Tuesday.
“It means we’re not here to help you. If you don’t, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
Zones to be evacuated include along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore evacuation orders.
“This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have survival plans and follow updates on the storm’s evolving path.
Associated Press contributors include Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; and Julie Walker in New York.
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