Hurricane Ian hit the west coast of Florida on Wednesday as weather forecasters warned of life-threatening surges and catastrophic flooding.
In the city of Fort Myers residents reported seeing cars and boats float down the streets, while in Naples, water levels reached 1.8m (six feet) above those for a normal high tide as the sea engulfed roads.
In Collier county, south of Fort Myers, authorities said water that flooded into garages was over the roofs of vehicles.
In Tampa to the north, the hurricane’s powerful winds were blowing anti-clockwise and driving water out to sea, effectively draining the bay. Parts of Tampa Bay only had about 30cm (one foot) of water. Authorities warned that higher levels could return quite quickly.
The hurricane hit the west coast of Florida just after lunchtime local time on Wednesday after earlier causing devastation in Cuba. The US National Hurricane Center said its centre at that time was about 40km (25 miles) from Fort Myers.
Forecasters warned of storm surges of up to 5.5m (18 feet) of water in some areas. In addition they predicted that parts of Florida could be hit by more than half a metre – or two feet – of rain.
The hurricane intensified on Wednesday morning into a category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of just under 250km/h (155 miles) per hour recorded. Officials warned it could strengthen further to a category 5 storm, the highest classification on the hurricane measurement scale.
In the last 30 years only two category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the United States.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) said the majority of the state of Florida was “in the crosshairs” of the hurricane. By shortly after lunchtime on Wednesday, there were about 470,000 people were without power in the state, with the figure expected to grow further.
Prior to hitting Florida, Hurricane Ian had swept across western Cuba. At least two people died there as a result of the storm and the island was left without power.
Cuban authorities began restoring electricity to the island’s grid on Wednesday morning but warned the process could be slow.
On Wednesday morning US president Joe Biden described the hurricane as “incredibly dangerous”.
“It is life-threatening. You should obey all warnings and directions from emergency officials. Don’t take anything for granted. Use their judgment, not yours. Evacuate when ordered. Be prepared. Storm warnings are real, the evacuation notices are real, the danger is real,” he said.
The White House said Mr Biden would on Thursday visit Fema’s headquarters in Washington to receive a briefing on the government’s response to the storm.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis warned residents in several locations that it was “no longer possible to safely evacuate” ahead of the hurricane, which he said was going to be a “historic storm”.
Some local authority chiefs in south west Florida told residents who had opted to remain in their homes should stay there as it was now too dangerous to attempt to reach official shelters due to heavy rains and failing trees.
The US National Weather Center forecast that the storm surge in the Fort Myers and Punta Gorda areas could reach up to 5.5m
Fema administrator Deanne Chriswell predicted that the hurricane would have a “catastrophic” impact, “and not just where we’re going to see the storm make landfall, but we’re also really concerned about all of the inland flooding because it’s bringing with it a lot of rain and it’s going to move slowly”.
This meant people in the hurricane’s path were going to experience the impacts for a long time, she said.
The hurricane is projected to track across the state of Florida in a north east direction before heading out into the Atlantic close to Orlando. It is forecast that it will turn back to hit the states of Georgia and South Carolina later in the week.
In Orlando the theme parks such as Disney, Seaworld and Universal will be closed on Wednesday and Thursday. At the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast authorities have rolled back the powerful new moon rocket into its hangar to protect it from the impact of the storm.