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Thousands evacuate as Hurricane Ian nears Fla.; all of Cuba loses power

Dania Perry, a resident of Treasure Island, Fla., prepares to evacuate with her family from her beachfront home on Tuesday before the potential impact of Hurricane Ian that is headed for the Florida Gulf Coast. (Octavio Jones for The Washington Post)

TAMPA — Floridians streamed out of low-lying coastal communities, stocked up on sandbags and supplies, and boarded over windows Tuesday as Hurricane Ian barreled toward the state with what Gov. Ron DeSantis called “historic storm surge and flood potential.”

The storm is forecast to make landfall along Florida’s southwest or west central coast between Wednesday afternoon and night as a major Category 4 storm.

Although officials in Tampa expressed relief that the hurricane forecast’s path had moved south, possibly reducing the risk of catastrophic flooding in the uniquely ill-prepared city, surrounding Hillsborough County and other jurisdictions along the Gulf Coast expanded evacuation orders that already covered more than 2 million Florida residents. DeSantis (R) warned that severe impacts were still expected in the Tampa Bay region and urged those who had already left to stay away.

“We are looking at really, really major storm surge up and down the west coast of Florida,” DeSantis said.

Before heading toward Florida, Ian ravaged through Cuba, disrupting the country’s electricity grid. As of 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, the national electric system was generating zero power, leaving the entire country without service, according to Cuban state media.

Local leaders in Florida cautioned that even an indirect hit from the hurricane could devastate waterside communities, and authorities said impacts were expected across the width of the peninsula. Power outages could linger for days, while “disruptions in fuel supplies” are possible, the governor said.

Dozens of emergency shelters began to welcome evacuees and their pets. Airports were closed. Urban search-and-rescue teams, high-water vehicles and law-enforcement aviation units were prepositioned around the state. Five thousand Florida National Guard troops, as well as 2,000 additional troops from other states, were activated, officials said.

Hurricane Ian is expected to hit Florida on Sept. 28, bringing with it heavy rains, damaging winds and extensive flooding. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Some residents who decided to wait out the storm were rushing to make last-minute preparations, stocking up on supplies and hurricane-proofing their homes. Others, meanwhile, were racing to escape Ian’s path.

South Tampa residents Raymond Oubichon and his girlfriend, Chantell Holden, hit the road at 6 a.m. Tuesday and by midmorning were in the parking lot of a fully booked Motel 6 just off Interstate 75 in Ocala, Fla., about 100 miles north of home. They’d struck out at other hotels and were waiting to see if a room opened after check-in.

Oubichon, 49, a retired entertainer from New Orleans, was out of town when Hurricane Katrina devastated that city in 2005. But his family and neighborhood were hit hard.

“So I know what water and storm surge can do,” Oubichon said. “I’ve only been in Tampa for two years, but I did not want to try to ride out a hurricane here.” He added, even if it meant having to put overpriced hotel rooms on his new credit card. “I don’t want to max it out already, but also, I don’t want to die. So here we are.”

The storm intensified overnight Monday before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane early Tuesday in Cuba. By 8 p.m. Tuesday, Ian was moving at a speed of 120 mph about 180 miles south-southwest of Punta Gorda, Fla.

While still subject to shifts, weather model projections on Tuesday began to converge on the idea of Ian making landfall in Florida between Fort Myers and Sarasota some time Wednesday afternoon or night.

That means the highest storm surge risk could be just to the south of Tampa Bay, with as much as 12 feet of ocean water surging over normally dry land. But Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said that should not prompt Tampa-area residents to pull back on preparations. The ground is soft following the region’s summer rainy season, downed trees are likely to cause extended power outages, and some models suggest up to two feet of rain is possible in some areas.

“Don’t get enamored with the track and its recent shifts,” Rhome said.

The storm’s southward drift evoked memories of Hurricane Charley, which in 2004 abruptly swerved east and pummeled Punta Gorda, Fla., instead of striking Tampa. But DeSantis stressed on Tuesday that Ian was different from Charley — and probably worse.

“Charley was a lot smaller … and most of the damage from Charley was from wind and wind destruction,” DeSantis said. “What we have here is really historic storm surge and flooding potential. So if you look at places like Fort Myers, Charlotte County, Sarasota, the storm surge you are going to see generated from this is going to far eclipse what we saw there.”

Despite officials’ stern warnings and evacuation orders, some veterans of Florida’s fall hurricane seasons said they were comfortable with a certain amount of risk.

On Treasure Island, Fla., a barrier island just north of St. Pete Beach, Paul Payne and his wife loaded up their car Tuesday morning, but only after spending three days mulling what to take. Payne, a retired electrical engineer, settled on fleeing with their dog, clothes and computers — but they decided to go only as far as a hotel he deemed sufficiently above sea level in St. Petersburg, Fla., a city also largely under evacuation orders.

“Looks like the eye is going to further south of Tampa Bay, and if that holds, then I think we will be in good shape,” said Payne, a recreational sailor who had evacuated his home three times over his 37 years in Florida. “Everybody that lives in Florida is aware of the fact that they can have stressful times when hurricanes come … but hopefully it doesn’t happen more than every 20 years or so.”

In South Tampa at a sprawling neighborhood surrounded by water on three sides, 63-year-old Jo Ann Dusol said she would remain in her one-story house, strategically placing 12 sandbags around to try to keep floodwaters at bay. Dusol said she simply couldn’t leave knowing her family — Onyx and Chloe, her two pit bull and chow mixes — would struggle around other dogs in a shelter.

“They are protective, and those are my girls, and they take care of me,” said Dusol, who was gathering supplies at a convenience store. “I am nervous, but I have lived here my whole life, so you learn how to become more and more prepared.”

If Tampa Bay does overspill its banks and threaten her house, Dusol said she already has a plan, “I could be one of those [Hurricane] Katrina people sitting on top of my roof waving at people.”

Ian forecast: Major hurricane landfall expected along Florida’s west coast

The challenge of pinning down Ian’s track meant difficult decisions for many residents on whether to evacuate or stay, according to researchers who study hurricanes and evacuations.

The scene in Florida as residents prepare for Hurricane Ian

“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.

On Key West, Mark Jacob decided to roll up the striped awnings and board the windows of his store, Duck and Dolphin Antiques. He and a friend covered the glass with numbered wooden planks, carrying out a routine he had done several times with the same boards over the past two decades.

“You usually walk down Duval Street,” Jacob said, referring to Key West’s main drag, “and say, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’”

But Barry Dell, a 60-year-old Cincinnati native who has been staying on the island, decided to hunker down at Key West High School, which opened as a shelter in anticipation of the storm. Dell said a local told him that Ian would be “no big deal” in the Keys. But it didn’t make Dell feel better. Calling himself a hurricane “first-timer,” he said he was “scared to death.”

Kristen Livengood, a spokeswoman for surrounding Monroe County, said advances in hurricane forecasting allowed officials to avoid evacuating the Keys. “Ten years ago, this would have been a mass evacuation of all the Florida Keys and all the visitors and a major stop to everything,” Livengood said. Instead, county officials told people who live in campgrounds, RVs or aboard docked boats to seek shelter by midafternoon Tuesday.

Jennifer Collins, a geosciences professor at the University of South Florida who lives in the Tampa region, said her neighbors had 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.”

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 cause serious coastal inundation.

The storm’s expected slow movement as it approaches Florida also probably means sustained, flooding rains, with 10 to 20 inches or more possible in some areas.

At a public park in West Tampa on Tuesday, dozens of cars lined up to fill sandbags, snaking around the block more than an hour after the site was set to close. Even after the location ran out of empty bags, residents piled sand into plastic buckets, trash can liners and bright blue Ikea bags.

As she loaded her SUV trunk with sandbags, Annie Blackard, 26, said she’s been in Tampa “for all the near misses,” but Hurricane Ian feels different. She had stocked up on board games, food and water, grabbing supplies from stores with near-empty shelves that reminded her of the early days of the covid-19 pandemic.

“I’ve never gotten sandbags before, I’ve never boarded my house,” Blackard said. “But this one we’re expecting flooding.”

In Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, the city’s lively Cuban-inspired entertainment district, most bars and restaurants were already closed. Amid bouts of drizzle and intermittent sunshine, some shop owners were boarding up their businesses as they prepared for the storm.

But at Longash Cigars, three torcedors — cigar-rollers — kept at their work in preparation for a last-minute rush of customers. Each torcedor can roll about 100 cigars per day.

The store’s owner, Mike Cincunegui, was waiting until Tuesday evening to cover its windows and safeguard his merchandise, which also includes about 90 brands of pre-rolled cigars.

“If we get a direct hit, I think this is going to be as bad as Tampa is ever going to get hit,” said Cincungui, 39. “I don’t fear things like loss of life as much, but I fear power outages for weeks on end. Flooding, people stranded.”

Thebault reported from Tampa; Rosza reported from Ocala; Dance reported from Washington; and Brulliard reported from Boulder, Colo. Brittany Shammas in Key West, Fla.; Tim Craig in Tampa; Annabelle Timsit in London; Andrew Jeong in Seoul; and Jason Samenow in Washington contributed to this report.

The Atlantic hurricane season

The latest: The 2022 season started out slow, but has rapidly intensified this fall with conditions prime for storms. Fiona brought severe flooding to Puerto Rico before making landfall in Canada, and now we’re tracking Hurricane Ian as it heads for Florida. For the seventh year in a row, hurricane officials expect an above-average season of hurricane activity.

Tips for preparing: We rounded up seven safety tips to help you get ready for hurricanes. Here’s some other guidance about keeping your phone charged and useful in dangerous weather, and what to know about flood insurance.

Understanding climate change: It’s not just you — hurricanes and tropical storms have hit the U.S. more frequently in recent years. And last summer alone, nearly 1 in 3 Americans experienced a weather disaster. Read more about how climate change is fueling severe weather events.