Hurricane Ian rapidly intensifies as it nears Florida

Hurricane Ian rapidly intensifies as it nears Florida
A dog is walked through floodwater as the tide rises in Key West, Florida as the first bands of rain associated with Hurricane Ian pass to the west of the island chain (Rob O’Neal/The Key West Citizen via AP)

Hurricane Ian has rapidly intensified off Florida’s south-west coast, gaining top winds of 155mph, just shy of the most dangerous Category 5 status.

Damaging winds and rain lashed the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, with the Naples to Sarasota region at “highest risk” of a devastating storm surge.

US Air Force hurricane hunters confirmed Ian gained strength over warm Gulf of Mexico water after battering Cuba, bringing down the country’s electricity grid and leaving the entire island without power.

Ian was centred about 65 miles west-southwest of Naples at 7am local time, swirling towards the coast at 10mph.

(PA Graphics)

The massive storm appeared on track to slam into Florida’s south-western Gulf coast somewhere north of Fort Myers and some 125 miles south of Tampa, sparing the bay area from a rare direct hit from a hurricane.

The Fort Myers area is popular with retirees and tourists drawn to pristine white sandy beaches and long barrier islands, which forecasters said could be completely inundated.

The hurricane centre warned of catastrophic storm surges raising the water level as much as 12ft (3.6 metres) to 16ft (4.9 metres) above ground level for coastal areas straddling Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, which are between Naples and Sarasota.

More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no-one could be forced to flee.

Florida residents rushed to board up their homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and flee.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area on Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens seeking a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando.

This GOES-East GeoCcolor satellite image taken at 10.10pm EDT on Tuesday and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Ian over the Gulf of Mexico (NOAA via AP)

“We live in a high risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Winds exceeding tropical-storm strength of 39mph reached Florida by 3am local time and the first hurricane-force winds were recorded by 6am, well in advance of the eyewall moving inland, the Miami-based centre said.

Rainfall near the area of landfall could top 18in (46 centimetres).

“It is a big storm, it is going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in,” Florida governor Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 in the storm’s projected path.

He warned at a news conference: “This is the kind of storm surge that is life threatening.”

Ian’s forward movement slowed over the Gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger.

Kristi Burghdurf takes a photo of the sunset as an outer band of Hurricane Ian passes the waterfront of Tampa Bay in St Petersburg, Florida (Phelan M Ebenhack/AP)

A hurricane warning covering roughly 220 miles of the state included Fort Myers as well as Tampa and St Petersburg, which could get their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

Forecasters said the storm surge could reach 12ft (3.6 metres) if it peaks at high tide.

Rainfall near the area of landfall could top 18in (46 centimetres).

Gil Gonzalez was not taking any chances.

He boarded the windows of his Tampa home with plywood and laid down sandbags to guard against any flooding.

He and his wife packed their car with bottled water, torches, battery packs for their mobile phones and a camp stove before evacuating.

Mary Kate Walker and Jon Walker, the co-owners of Tides Seafood Market & Provisions, move plywood in front of the main entrance of their business in Safety Harbour, Florida, as they prepare for Hurricane Ian (Angelica Edwards/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

“All the prized possessions, we’ve put them upstairs in a friend’s house,” Mr Gonzalez said.

Airports in Tampa, St Petersburg and Key West closed.

Disney World theme parks and Sea World in Orlando all closed ahead of the storm.

A couple from England on holiday in Tampa found themselves faced with riding out the storm at a shelter.

Glyn and Christine Williams, from London, were told to leave their hotel near the beach when evacuations were ordered.

Because the airport shut down, they could not get a flight home.

“Unfortunately, all the hotels are full or closed, so it looks as though we’re going to be in one of the shelters,” Christine Williams said.

Her husband insisted all would be fine.

“You know, you got to go with the flow,” Glyn Williams said.

Kite surfers glide across the water as they take advantage of strong winds caused by Hurricane Ian at Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables, Florida (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

“So we’re quite happy doing what we’re doing.”

The precise location of landfall was still uncertain, but with Ian’s tropical storm-force winds extending 175 miles from its centre, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida.

Flash floods were possible across the whole state, and portions of its east coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approach the Atlantic Ocean.

Warnings were also issued for isolated tornadoes.

Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to brace for days without electricity.

As a precaution, hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also see flooding rains and some coastal surge into Saturday.

Georgia governor Brian Kemp pre-emptively declared an emergency, ordering 500 National Guard troops on to standby to respond as needed.

Fallen telegraph poles and branches line a street after Hurricane Ian hit Pinar del Rio, Cuba (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Before turning towards Florida, Ian struck Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province with sustained winds of 125mph, causing destruction in the island nation’s world-famous tobacco belt.

Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage at the main hospital in Pinar del Rio city, tweeting photos of collapsed ceilings, widely flung debris and toppled trees.

No deaths were reported.

Some left the stricken area on foot, carrying their children, while buses tried to evacuate others through waterlogged streets.

Others opted to stay at their damaged houses.

“It was horrible,” said Yusimi Palacios, a resident of Pinar del Rio inside her damaged house.

“But here we are alive, and I only ask the Cuban revolution to help me with the roof and the mattress.”

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