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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Tropical Storm Ian could hit Florida as a major hurricane

An undated photo provided by CIRA/NOAA shows a satellite image of Tropical Depression Nine, which became Tropical Storm Ian late Friday, Sept. 23.

By The New York Times

Tropical Storm Ian, which formed late Friday over the central Caribbean Sea, is expected to intensify rapidly Sunday, potentially becoming a very strong hurricane near western Cuba before threatening Florida as a major hurricane this week, forecasters said.

Forecasters said that Ian, which was about 540 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, was expected to become a hurricane by late Sunday and a major hurricane by late Monday or early Tuesday.

“Ian is going to be a large and powerful hurricane in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and spread its impacts over a large portion of the Florida Peninsula,” Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a briefing Sunday.

A hurricane warning was in effect Sunday morning for areas in western Cuba, which could see “life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds” beginning Monday, the Hurricane Center said.

“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” it said Sunday.

The Florida Keys could get 2 to 4 inches of rain, with some areas getting 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.

At a Sunday news conference, a day after declaring a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida emphasized the continued uncertainty of the storm’s path.

“Just don’t think if you’re not in that eye, that somehow you don’t have to make preparations,” he said. He cautioned residents to anticipate possible power failures, fuel disruptions and evacuation orders.

While satellite imagery of Ian may not currently look “overly impressive,” that will change as the storm unfolds and become “a little unsettling as that satellite really builds out,” Rhome warned.

“A lot of people are going to run to the stores when they see that, so I stress that you use the rest of today to finalize your preparation while it’s calm,” he said.

“The surge vulnerability along the west coast of Florida is very extreme,” Rhome said, adding, “I’m telling you, it doesn’t take an onshore or direct hit from a hurricane to pile up the water.”

Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, 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.

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

The storm’s center is expected to pass southwest of Jamaica on Sunday evening, with maximum winds near 50 mph, the Hurricane Center said. Ian is then expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands early Monday before moving near or over western Cuba late Monday, forecasters said.

Ian is expected to generate 3 to 6 inches of rain in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, and 6 to 10 inches in western Cuba, with up to 12 inches possible, the center said.

As of Sunday afternoon, a hurricane warning was in effect for Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio, and Artemisa. A tropical storm watch was in effect for Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, and a tropical storm warning was in effect for the Cuban provinces of La Habana, Mayabeque and Matanzas.

This hurricane season is Nicole Sigismondi’s first time preparing for it alone with her two children, ages 7 and 15; her fiancée died almost a year ago. When she went to buy water Friday night, it was sold out.

“There was nothing left at Walmart,” she said. “That was a little unsettling.”

During Hurricane Irma in 2017, parts of her house flooded and was without power for three weeks, she said. She and her family had to walk about 1 mile through water before someone could pick them up in a car, which a tree then fell on.

Hurricane paths can often change suddenly, which was the case five years ago when Irma moved toward her area in Pasco County, Florida, north of Tampa.

“The hope is that you get lucky, but you hope it doesn’t hit anybody else,” Sigismondi said. “You don’t wish bad on them.”

Ian is the ninth named storm of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season. A storm is given a name after it reaches wind speeds of at least 39 mph.

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.

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.

Three to five of those could strengthen into what NOAA calls major hurricanes — Category 3 or stronger — with winds of at least 111 mph.

Last year, there were 21 named storms, after a record-breaking 30 in 2020. For the past two years, meteorologists have exhausted the list of names used to identify storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, an occurrence that has happened only one other time, in 2005.

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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