Hurricane Ian is rapidly intensifying and maximum sustained winds are now close to Category 5 strength as the system nears Florida.
Ian is expected to make landfall in the state on Wednesday as a ‘catastrophic’ Category 4 storm. The National Hurricane Center says Ian is expected to cause life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flooding in the Florida peninsula.
As of Wednesday morning, Ian was located less than 200 miles west-southwest of Naples, Florida packing maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and moving north-northeast at 9 mph. If Ian reaches 157 mph or higher, it would be a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
Hurricane Ian intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm as it approached Florida and forecasters predicted it would retain top winds of 140 mph (220 kph) until landfall Wednesday afternoon. Tropical storm force winds and rain were already hitting the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, with the Naples to Sarasota region at “highest risk” of a devastating storm surge.
U.S. 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.
The hurricane could push as much as 12 feet (3.6 meters) of ocean water ashore in Florida, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said, urging people to evacuate the danger zone if they still can. More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law no one could be forced to flee.
Ian was centered about 55 miles (100 kilometers) west-southwest of Naples at 6 a.m., swirling toward the coast at 10 mph (17 kph).
Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact 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 Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens seeking a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando. “We live in a high risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”