Ian reaches hurricane strength, could become ‘catastrophic’ Category 4 storm targeting Florida

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Tropical Storm Ian strengthened into a hurricane early Monday and threatened to grow stronger while roaring across the Caribbean toward Cuba and Florida.

Ian was moving northwest at 14 mph, about 90 miles southwest of Grand Cayman, according to the National Hurricane Center. It has maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.

“A quick uptick in strengthening is expected early this week as Ian moves into the western Caribbean, where low wind shear and very warm water are in place,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Adam Douty said. “This will raise the likelihood of significant impacts in the western Caribbean, and eventually the United States.”

Ian was forecast to intensify rapidly into a major hurricane, Category 3 or greater, as soon as late Monday, AccuWeather said. The storm could ultimately reach Category 4 status, which means sustained winds from 130 mph to 156 mph.

Ian was forecast to emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, pass west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday, and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday.

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Landfall is increasingly likely in Florida midweek, AccuWeather said. Ian is expected to miss most of Cuba’s high, mountainous terrain that often disrupts tropical systems, allowing the storm to become a powerful Category 4 hurricane. What happens next will depend largely on the exact track Ian takes, according to AccuWeather. A southward dip in the jet stream across the United States will help pull the storm northward and into the coast.

“Just how quickly this interaction happens will determine the track of Ian, as well as how strong the system is when it reaches land,” AccuWeather said.

The National Weather Service on Monday issued a hurricane watch along the west coast of Florida from north of Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide state of emergency, urging residents to load up on food, water, medicine, batteries and fuel. He said it was too soon to determine when or where Ian will make landfall, but that evacuations may be ordered in coming days.

“Expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge and even isolated tornadoes. Make preparations now,” he said Sunday. “Anticipate power outages. That is something that is likely to happen with a hurricane of this magnitude.”

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If the storm struck as a Category 4 hurricane, it could cause “catastrophic” damage, and power outages could last weeks or possibly months, according to the National Weather Service’s description of storms that strong. Areas can be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the weather service says. 

“Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state,” DeSantis warned.

Heavy rainfall is expected to affect North Florida, eastern portions of the Florida Panhandle, and portions of the Southeast, and mid-Atlantic regions into the weekend.

“Considerable flooding impacts are possible mid-to-late week in central Florida given already saturated antecedent conditions,” the weather service warned. “Flash and urban flooding is possible with rainfall across the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula through mid week.”

Limited flood impacts and rises on area streams and rivers are possible over northern Florida and portions of the Southeast mid-to-late week.

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NASA said Sunday that it was monitoring Tropical Storm Ian and would make a decision Monday on when or if it would roll back the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to the protection of the assembly building. The agency said it would “prioritize the agency’s people and hardware,” keeping the vehicle at the launch pad to preserve an opportunity for a launch attempt on Oct. 2.

Bethune-Cookman University canceled classes Monday and said it would reconvene remotely on Tuesday.

“As a precaution, and in the interest of safety for members of our campus community, the university has issued a mandatory campus evacuation,” the school said in a statement on its website. The school, a private, historically black university in Daytona Beach, has about 2,750 undergraduate students.

The school told its students that their smartphones are “computers” and that they should continue to use their cellphones to keep up with their studies in the event they do not have access to a tablet, laptop or desktop technology.

AccuWeather meteorologists are warning that the storm could slam the west coast of Florida – an often-missed target. The U.S. database shows that about 160 hurricanes, excluding tropical storms, have affected Florida. Only 17 have made landfall on the west coast north of the Florida Keys.

Most storms typically travel northeast or northwest, not up the coast, AccuWeather senior weather editor Jesse Ferrell said. There is no record of a hurricane ever having tracked entirely up the west coast of Florida since records began in 1944. But Ian appears likely to take a “very unusual track,” he said.

Florida has had recent storms that were hurricanes, but were downgraded to tropical storms before landfall, Ferrell said. Elsa in 2021 made landfall west of Tampa, and Eta in 2020 made landfall north of Tampa in Cedar Key. Neither had the firepower close to a Category 3 storm, however.

Contributing: Rick Neale, Florida Today; The Associated Press