More than 2 million residents in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida have been ordered to evacuate their homes as Hurricane Ian makes its slow but steady approach towards the state's western Gulf Coast region.
Forecasters at the Miami-based National Hurricane Center say Ian is moving across the Gulf of Mexico carrying maximum sustained winds of 195 kilometers an hour, making it a Category 3 storm on the center's five-level scale that measures a storm's maximum sustained wind speed and destructive potential.
At last report, the storm was located about 175 kilometers southwest of Naples, Florida. The NHC says Ian will pass just west of the Florida Keys, an archipelago located at the tip of the Florida Peninsula, early Wednesday morning. Ian is expected to grow stronger and evolve into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane before it makes landfall sometime Wednesday afternoon or night between the cities of Fort Myers and Sarasota.
Storm surges, winds, floods expected
Forecasters say Hurricane Ian is expected to cause life-threatening storm surges, catastrophic winds and flooding in the Florida Peninsula, as well as considerable flash, city and river flooding as it crosses over central Florida between Wednesday night and Thursday before reemerging over the western Atlantic Ocean. Ian is also expected to produce as much as 30 to 60 centimeters of rain stretching from the Florida Keys and South Florida into the neighboring states of Georgia and South Carolina.
Thousands of flights have been canceled after several major airports in the expected path of the storm, including Tampa and St. Petersburg, shut down operations.
The potential devastation from Ian prompted the U.S. space agency NASA to roll its massive Artemis 1 moon rocket and Orion space capsule from its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center - located on Florida's eastern coast - back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, further delaying its much anticipated test flight by several more weeks.
White House press secretary Karrine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday on Twitter that President Joe Biden had spoken to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis "to discuss the steps the Federal government is taking to help Florida prepare for Hurricane Ian." President Biden has issued an emergency declaration for Florida, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster-relief efforts and provide more federal funding.
Cuba without power
The hurricane is heading towards Florida after making landfall Tuesday on western Cuba as a Category 3 storm. The storm left the entire island without power after its aging electrical grid, which has been struggling to remain operational amid a dire economic crisis, collapsed late Tuesday.
Ian left behind a trail of destruction across Pinar del Rio province, Cuba's main tobacco growing region, ripping the roofs off homes and buildings and making streets impassable from downed trees and power lines and flooding. Authorities evacuated as many as 40,000 people from low-lying areas of Pinar del Rio.
Reuters says state-run media is reporting that at least two people died in western Cuba as a result of Hurricane Ian.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.