Hurricane Ian gained strength Monday morning with its path continuing to target Florida’s Gulf Coast including a threat to Central Florida, which is now under a tropical storm watch as hurricane watches were issued along the coast.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said 5,000 National Guardsmen from Florida along with 2,000 more from neighboring states have been activated along with five urban search and rescue teams in preparation for the storm’s impact during a a press conference from the State Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. He warned of power loss as it makes landfall across a wide breadth of the state no matter where it finally makes landfall.
“Make sure you have your plan in place,” he said.
As of 11 a.m., the National Hurricane Center puts Ian’s center about 100 miles west of Grand Cayman and about 240 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 80 mph moving northwest at 13 mph. Its hurricane-force winds extend out 25 miles with tropical-storm-force winds extending out 115 miles.
“Ian is expected to remain at or near major hurricane strength as it passes near the west-central coast of Florida on Wednesday and Thursday,” said NHC hurricane specialist Brad Reinhart. “An even greater concern is the slower forward motion that is forecast during this period, as the upper trough passes north and east of Ian and the steering currents weaken. This would likely prolong the storm surge, wind, and rainfall impacts along the affected portions of the west coast of Florida, although the roughly shore-parallel track still makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what locations will experience the most severe impacts.”
A hurricane watch has been issued from Englewood to the Anclote River including Tampa Bay. A storm surge watch is also in place for the Florida Keys from the Card Sound Bridge west to Key West, the Dry Tortugas, Florida Bay and from the Anclote River south to the Card Sound Bridge as well as Tampa Bay. A tropical storm watch is now in place for the west coast of Florida from Chokoloskee southward to Flamingo, for the Florida Keys from the Seven Mile Bridge east to the Channel 5 Bridge in the Middle Keys and for Lake Okeechobee.
The National Weather Service in Melbourne also issues inland tropical storm watches for Lake, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties while Polk County was also under a tropical storm watch from the NWS Tampa office.
The latest track forecasts its center to be west of the Florida Keys by Tuesday evening as a major Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph winds, but begin to lose steam as it approaches the Florida coast.
By Wednesday night, its center is still offshore but off the coast of Tampa Bay as a strong Category 2 hurricane with 120 mph sustained winds and gusts near 150 mph. The projected landfall could come Thursday afternoon north of Clearwater still as a Category 2 storm.
“You can’t be waiting to the last minute to move around or make your preparations because rain will begin to spread over the area as the storm approaches,” said acting NHC Director Jamie Rhome.
Those who might be in a potential evacuation zone can go to Floridadissater.org/planprepare and click on the link for “Know your zone, know your home.” Type in your home address to see if it’s in one of the six evacuation zones.
“Evacuations are at the local level,” State Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said.
“It should again be stressed that there is still significant uncertainty in the track of Ian, especially in the 3-5 day time frame, and users should not focus on the details of the track forecast at longer time ranges,” said NHC forecasters in the storm discussion noting some models have it making landfall farther south along the Florida coast with others putting it north in the Panhandle.
Either way the system is expected to undergo rapid intensification today gaining strength to a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 100 mph by this afternoon and to blow up into a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 140 mph off the coast of Southwest Florida by early Wednesday morning.
“On the forecast track, the center of Ian is expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands today, and near or over western Cuba tonight and early Tuesday. Ian will then emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, and pass west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday, and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday,” according to NHC forecasters.
Tropical-storm conditions are expected in the lower Florida Keys on Tuesday with the west coast of Florida potentially seeing those by Tuesday evening. Hurricane conditions are possible along the Florida west coast on Wednesday. Parts of the Florida peninsula could see 8 to 10 inches of rain with some spots up to 15 inches while the Florida Keys are expected to see 4 to 6 inches.
Storm surge along some parts of the coast could reach 10 feet, the NHC said.
“Considerable flooding impacts are possible mid-to-late week in central Florida given already saturated antecedent conditions, and flash and urban flooding is possible with rainfall across the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula through mid week,” the forecast said. “Limited flood impacts and rises on area streams and rivers are possible over northern Florida and portions of the Southeast mid-to-late week.”
The chances for tornadoes begin late Monday and Tuesday across the Florida Keys and then into the southern and central Florida peninsula, the NHC said.
Computer forecast models late Friday still weren’t in perfect alignment on where the storm may go – a landfall north of the Tampa Bay area or one farther north in Florida’s panhandle.
Whether it’s a direct hit in west Central Florida or in the panhandle, Hurricane Ian will have a significant impact weather in Florida this week.
“Regardless of Ian’s exact track and intensity, there is a risk of dangerous storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of this week, and residents in Florida should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place,” the hurricane center warned. “Follow any advice given by local officials and closely monitor updates to the forecast.”
The next forecast track adjustment from the NHC is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday.
Hurricane Warnings remain for Grand Cayman and parts of Cuba, where significant wind and storm impacts are expected within the next 24 hours.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property.
NASA decided Monday to roll its $4.1 billion Artemis I mission rocket back to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center.
John Cangialosi, a senior hurricane specialist at the Miami-based hurricane center, said it was not yet clear exactly where Ian will hit hardest. He said Floridians should begin preparations, including gathering supplies for potential power outages.
“At this point really the right message for those living in Florida is that you have to watch forecasts and get ready and prepare yourself for potential impact from this tropical system,” he said.
David Sharp, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Melbourne, said now is time for Central Florida residents to pay attention to Ian’s forecast.
“Stay up to date with the forecasts,” Sharp said. “Small changes in the forecast can end up making a big difference by the time it gets to us on day four or five.”
“You always want to plan for the most likely scenario at the minimum and prepare for a reasonable worst case scenario which means how bad it could get,” Sharp said. “The current forecast is what we call the most likely scenario so with that we are concerned with flooding rain, with tropical storm force winds, and hurricane gusts and tornadoes.”
As for when the Ian could have the greatest impact on Central Florida, Sharp pointed to Wednesday.
“The most likely time is Wednesday afternoon, evening about that time, so you definitely want to have things done by Wednesday morning, Wednesday afternoon the latest,” Sharp said. “Before we see the winds we are going to see rain … so you don’t want to be running around when the roads might be flooded or there’s tornado warnings.”
“The hazards that we’re concerned most about this time is flooding rain … also there’s a concern for tropical-storm-force winds with hurricane gusts right now,” Sharp said.
Across Central Florida, schools were monitoring Ian’s progress.
On Monday, Lake County Public Schools announced facilities would be closed both Wednesday and Thursday. To find out what school districts are closing schools, go to FLDOE.org/storminfo.
Bethune-Cookman University, a private historically Black university in Daytona Beach, announced a mandatory campus evacuation beginning Monday at noon with no return date set yet and students in residents halls were encouraged to evacuate as soon as Sunday.
At B-CU classes will be moved online only on Tuesday, according to a letter by the Office of Academic Affairs on Saturday.
At the University of Central Florida, campus will remain open with a status update coming on Monday to decide university operations for the coming week.
Rollin College in Winter Park, will announced the campus will close at 5 p.m. Wednesday; with residential halls to close at 4 p.m. Wednesday, and all staying closed Thursday and Friday for damage assessment.
The University of South Florida in Tampa will keep campus operations open and classes as scheduled pending an update Sunday evening, according to the official university website.
Florida State University and the University of Florida are continuing to monitor the storm before announcing any changes to campus operations or classes, according to their official social media pages.
Both universities ask their students to plan and prepare as well as ensure they are up to date with their university’s emergency alert system.
Elsewhere in the tropics, forecasters have upped the odds of an area of low pressure with shower and thunderstorm activity several hundred miles west of the Cabo Verde Islands.
A tropical depression is likely to form during the next couple of days before upper-level winds become less favorable toward the end of the week.
The NHC gives if a 70% chance to develop into the next tropical depression in the next two to five days.
Staff writer Jeffrey Schweers and The Associated Press contributed to this report.