Florida residents are bracing for Hurricane Ian, which has turned into a powerful storm that is heading directly for the state’s vulnerable south-western coast and has already caused evacuation orders to be issued in the state.
As forecast, the hurricane moved over western Cuba on Tuesday morning, making landfall around 4.30am local time. The National Weather Service on Tuesday morning said the storm will probably head north-north-east into the Gulf of Mexico, where it is likely to gain in strength and lose speed.
It is expected to pass west of Florida’s southern tip on Tuesday night before heading toward the Tampa Bay region on Wednesday.
Ian will be the first major hurricane of the 2022 hurricane season to hit the United States. Last year, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a category 4 hurricane and cost an estimated $75 billion in damages.
Officials put the Tampa region under a hurricane warning on Monday night and have said that catastrophic storm surges could cause flooding.
“This is a life-threatening situation. Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising waters and the potential for other dangerous conditions,” the National Weather Service said in its advisory. “Ian is forecast to approach the west coast of Florida as a dangerous major hurricane.”
Mandatory evacuations were issued on Monday for residents living along Tampa Bay’s coast. Residents have been scrambling to prepare for the worst. Distributions for sandbags, which are used to alleviate flooding damage, were at capacity in one Tampa county. Supermarkets were selling out of bottled water. The Tampa international airport, which sees about 60,000 passengers daily, announced a suspension of services starting Tuesday night until conditions have cleared.
Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, declared a state of emergency on Sunday and has urged residents to follow evacuation orders.
“Floridians up and down the Gulf coast should feel the impacts of this,” Mr DeSantis said on Tuesday during a press conference. “This is a really, really big hurricane at this point.”
Tampa Bay, which is surrounded by cities Tampa, St Petersburg and Clearwater, is especially vulnerable to flooding from a storm surge as the bay is shallow. In 2015, a firm in Boston that analyses catastrophe models named Tampa as the city most prone to storm surge flooding. It estimated that Tampa could see $175 billion in damages from such flooding.
The region, home to more than 3 million people, has not seen a major hurricane since 1921 and has become a booming centre for tourism that sees 15 million visitors a year.
Experts who have studied the bay have said for years that the region has been lucky to avoid a major hurricane given the potential for flooding. As seen throughout Florida, despite the risks posed by rising sea levels and storms made more powerful by climate change, luxury condominiums have continued to be built along the vulnerable coasts for years.
Now, Hurricane Ian could potentially deliver a worst-case scenario for Tampa Bay. The storm’s path could shift farther eastward, bringing it closer to the bay. In that case, the area could see a 10-ft storm surge, bringing major flooding to the area, according to the National Hurricane Center. If the eye of the storm stays westward of the bay, the storm surge could still be about five feet.
Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, told Fox News on Monday night that the National Weather Service has described a slow-moving hurricane near the bay as a catastrophic situation and warned residents in at-risk areas to take action.
“[It] doesn’t even have to make landfall over Florida, just stalls of the coast and pushes a bunch of water into the Tampa Bay region and into the western part of the state,” Mr Rubio said, noting that storm surges in low-lying areas are “not survivable”. — Guardian