Ian is expected to move into the Gulf of Mexico in the late morning, passing west of the Florida Keys later Tuesday and heading for the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane by Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in its most recent advisory.
The storm intensified overnight to become a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum winds estimated at more than 115 mph at its core before it made landfall near La Coloma in the Pinar Del Rio Province of Cuba. The National Hurricane Center warned that life-threatening storm surges, hurricane-force winds, flash floods and mudslides were expected in western Cuba overnight and into Tuesday, urging residents to move quickly to evacuate and protect property.
By 8 a.m. Tuesday, Ian had gained even more force, with 125 mph maximum sustained winds as it moved north at 12 mph, about 130 miles southwest of Dry Tortugas National Park near the Florida Keys.
The challenge of pinning down Ian’s track meant difficult decisions for residents on whether to evacuate or stay, according to researchers who study hurricanes and evacuations.
“The public is demanding precision in hurricane forecasts that we are able to give them in most storms,” said Jason Senkbeil, a professor in the geography department at the University of Alabama. But with Ian, he said, “it’s frustrating.”
On Monday, when jurisdictions in the Tampa Bay region began handing down evacuation orders, for example, it was clear Ian would eventually arrive as a strong storm, but plausible variations in its forecast track could mean the difference between relatively brief hurricane force winds and “a huge rainfall and surge event,” Senkbeil said.
“I just don’t know if people can pick up on those differences,” he said.
Jennifer Collins, a geosciences professor at the University of South Florida who lives in the Tampa region, said her neighbors have been peppering her with questions about storm threats and whether to evacuate. While they weren’t in an evacuation zone, there are still risks that may be too great for some to stay behind, she explained.
“They still focus on the center of the cone and not the edges of the cone,” Collins said. “You can get significant impacts outside of the cone. It’s kind of frustrating to me that they do that. At some stages they have been saying, ‘Oh, we’re okay,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know why you think we’re okay; we’re not. We should be getting prepared.”
Melissa Thomas, 31, was studying meteorology at Florida State University when Hurricane Michael arrived in 2018. Her parents chose to stay in their home and, as she watched the storm approach, “I thought, ‘Am I watching my parents die on the radar?’ I’ll never forget that thought.”
Thomas worked as an on-camera meteorologist before deciding to become a teacher — now at a high school in Bay County. She now offers forecasts through social media, and as Ian has developed this week, she noticed anxiety building among some Panhandle residents who lived through that earlier storm and fear enduring another.
“The mere fact we’re even in the conversation for possible landfalls is really heightening people’s awareness of their own stress of being in the cone of uncertainty,” Thomas said.
Even if Ian makes landfall elsewhere, she added, “it’s still very scary to even be being talked about on the periphery of a storm like that.”
Ian threatens to bring severe flooding and damaging winds to Florida’s Gulf Coast, appearing bound for landfall somewhere between Naples and the west coast’s Big Bend area between Wednesday and Thursday. It is forecast to become a Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds by late Tuesday, which would make it the strongest September hurricane in the gulf since Rita in 2005. The storm is then expected to weaken slightly as it approaches Florida, striking land as a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour.
Hurricane warnings were issued across the Tampa Bay region Monday evening, along with storm surge warnings, and on Tuesday the National Hurricane Center extended it southward to Bonita Springs, south of Fort Myers and Cape Coral. That is because weather forecasting models were increasingly suggesting Ian will make landfall toward the southern zone of earlier predictions, close to Tampa Bay or even just to its south.
The hurricane’s biggest threat may be the storm surge — a rise in ocean water over normally dry land caused by low air pressure and winds. The National Hurricane Center predicts Ian could send as much as 5 to 10 feet of storm surge onto Florida’s coastline, a hazard that can be deadly and destructive. The gentle slope of the ocean bottom along the Florida coastline means that even a minor hurricane or tropical storm can be capable of causing serious coastal inundation.
The storm’s expected slow movement as it approaches Florida also probably means flooding rains, with 10 to 20 inches or more possible in some areas.
Ian comes as part of a surge of late-season tropical activity in the Atlantic basin where, for the first time in 25 years, no named tropical cyclones formed during August. While meteorologists had been watching as many as five tropical systems in recent days, including a nascent Ian, the storm is now one of two under surveillance. The other, several hundred miles west of the Cabo Verde Islands, could soon become Tropical Storm Julia.
Brittany Shammas in Key West, Fla., Annabelle Timsit and Jason Samenow contributed to this report.