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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Some Floridians urged to begin evacuating as Hurricane Ian strengthens

Hurricane Ian over the central Caribbean on Monday. The storm is expected to grow stronger in the coming days.

By The New York Times

As Hurricane Ian picks up steam and heads north toward Cuba and eventually the United States, Florida residents have been urged to begin evacuations of low-lying areas and prepare for serious storm surge in the coming days.

Forecasters on Monday warned of “significant” winds and storm surge for western Cuba, and issued watches and warnings for much of the region, including the Dry Tortugas, the Florida Keys and Grand Cayman. Cuban authorities were preparing for evacuations.

The National Weather Service issued a hurricane watch for parts of the west coast of Florida, including Tampa Bay, where the governor, Ron DeSantis, warned residents to begin preparing for the storm’s arrival. A watch means that hurricane conditions are possible and is typically issued a few days before the arrival of strong winds.

DeSantis said Monday that the east coast of Florida could also have effects from the anticipated 500-mile wide storm, with possible flooding.

“This has really developed into a big storm,” he said at a briefing.

Hurricane Ian was expected to become a major hurricane — meaning Category 3 or stronger, with winds of at least 111 mph — as soon as Monday night when it is nearing Cuba, forecasters said. Its winds Monday afternoon were 85 mph.

At 2 p.m. Monday, it was 120 miles west-northwest of Grand Cayman, moving at 13 mph, the hurricane center said. The Cayman Islands government warned residents to expect “extremely rough seas” with waves as high as 14 feet, tropical storm force winds and a storm surge. Even as the hurricane warning was downgraded to a tropical storm warning, the government there issued advisories telling people to remain indoors.

“For your safety, we urge members of the community to stay off the roads and avoid the shoreline during the storm,” Danielle Coleman, director of the Hazard Management department for the Cayman Islands, said. “Strong winds, flying debris and storm surge can cause serious injury.”

Ian was 195 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba on Monday afternoon and intensifying. By Monday night, the forecast track puts Ian near or over western Cuba, where a hurricane warning was in place for Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa, the forecasters said.

Cuban authorities were preparing for evacuations in Matanzas province and moving people from Varadero, a northern beach resort town on the Hicacos Peninsula, to more secure areas.

On Tuesday, Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico, follow a course west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday.

“The surge vulnerability along the west coast of Florida is very extreme,” Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a briefing Sunday. “I’m telling you, it doesn’t take an onshore or direct hit from a hurricane to pile up the water.”

Some Florida communities began to issue evacuation orders or signal they might be ahead. Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, ordered people in low-lying areas along the shore and rivers as well as all mobile homes in the county to evacuate starting at 2 p.m. Monday.

Manatee County, south of Tampa on Florida’s west coast, also issued an evacuation order effective Tuesday morning. Many public offices will be closed from Tuesday until further notice.

Pinellas County, which is nearby, said it would look to evacuate residents in certain zones Tuesday, but it had not yet issued an order as of Monday morning. During a news conference, an official warned that the typical one-hour drive to Orlando could become a four- or even 10-hour drive because of traffic buildup. Residents were encouraged to top off gas tanks and buy water and nonperishable foods.

Some school districts in Florida had announced closures. Hillsborough County Public Schools said it had “no choice but to close schools” Monday through Thursday because county officials planned to use many schools as storm shelters starting Monday. Pasco County Schools said schools and offices would be closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sarasota County schools will also close Tuesday “out of an abundance of caution” and to prepare schools that serve as emergency evacuation centers, the local government said.

Scott Stricklin, athletic director at the University of Florida, said on Twitter on Monday that the Gators’ home game Saturday against Eastern Washington University remained “scheduled as planned.” But Stricklin said officials were monitoring the storm and how it could affect Gainesville, where the university is located.

At least two colleges ordered students to evacuate. Bethune-Cookman University, located in Daytona Beach, on the east coast of the state, issued a mandatory campus evacuation order starting Monday at noon, and an announcement said that a return date would be determined once it was safe. Eckerd College in St. Petersburg also ordered people to prepare to leave campus.

The Florida Keys could get 2 to 4 inches of rain, with some areas receiving up to 6 inches through Tuesday evening, the Hurricane Center said, adding that flash and urban flooding could occur across the Keys and Florida Peninsula. Flash flooding and mudslides are also possible in high terrain in Jamaica and Cuba.

After several postponements, NASA announced Monday that it would roll the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the vehicle assembly building from its launchpad.

“The decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system,” the administration said.

DeSantis, who has declared a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, emphasized the continued uncertainty of the storm’s path.

He said Monday that tolls were being suspended to help in evacuations, mostly along the west, and cautioned residents to anticipate possible power failures and fuel disruptions. But there was no need to “panic-buy” fuel and water, he said.

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said Monday that the Port of Tampa would be shut down, while east coast ports should be open.

He said at the news conference that as of Sunday afternoon the division had 360 trailers loaded with meals and water ready to distribute to residents.

Some animal shelters and rescues in Florida, such as Clewiston Animal Services and Haile’s Angels Pet Rescue, posted on social media asking residents or rescue partners not in evacuation zones to take in some of their dogs.

President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for 24 Florida counties that will unlock direct federal assistance.

Ian is expected to generate 1 to 3 inches of rain in Jamaica, 3 to 6 inches in the Cayman Islands, and 6 to 10 inches in western Cuba, with up to 16 inches possible, the center said.

The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, had a relatively quiet start, with only three named storms before Sept. 1 and none during August, the first time that had happened since 1997. Storm activity picked up in early September with Danielle and Earl, which formed within a day of each other. Ian is the ninth named storm of the season.

In early August, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an updated forecast for the rest of the season, which still called for an above-normal level of activity. In it, they predicted that the season — which runs through Nov. 30 — could see 14 to 20 named storms, with six to 10 turning into hurricanes with sustained winds of at least 74 mph.

The links between hurricanes and climate change have become clearer with each passing year. Data show that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades. A warming planet can expect stronger hurricanes over time and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms, though the overall number of storms could drop because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.

Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of increased water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; scientists have suggested storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surge — the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.

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