Ian nearly a Category 5 hurricane as it approaches Florida

Hurricane Ian it rapidly intensified off the southwestern coast of Florida on Wednesday morning, gaining top winds of 155 mph (250 kph), just shy of the most dangerous Category 5 status. Damaging winds and rains lashed the state’s densely populated Gulf Coast, with the Naples to Sarasota region at “increased risk” of a devastating storm surge.

US Air Force Hurricane Hunters confirmed Ian gained strength over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after hitting Cuba, bringing down the country’s power grid and leaving the entire island without power. Ian had the center of it about 65 miles (105 kilometers) west-southwest of Naples at 7 a.m., turning toward the coast at 10 mph (17 kph).

The massive storm appeared to be on track to hit Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast somewhere north of Fort Myers and about 125 miles (201 kilometers) south of Tampa, sparing the Bay Area a rare direct hit from a hurricane. The Fort Myers area is popular with retirees and tourists drawn to the pristine white-sand beaches and long barrier islands, which forecasters say could be completely flooded.

The hurricane center warned of catastrophic storm surges raising water levels up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) to 16 feet (4.9 meters) above ground level in 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. Floridians scrambled to anticipate the impact to board up their homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars far from shore.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area with his wife, son, dog and two kittens Tuesday in search of a hotel in Orlando’s tourist district. “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Winds in excess of tropical storm force 63 kph (39 mph) reached Florida at 3 a.m. and the first hurricane-force winds were recorded at 6 a.m., well before the eyewall moved toward inside, the Miami-based center said. Rainfall near the landfall area could exceed 18 inches (46 centimeters).

“It’s a big storm, it’s going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 in the storm’s projected path. “This is the kind of storm surge that is life-threatening.”

Ian’s forward motion slowed over the Gulf, allowing the hurricane to get wider and stronger, and its forecast track shifted slightly to the south, likely sparing the Tampa Bay area its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. But with gale-force winds expected across much of the peninsula, many cities could suffer significant damage.

Gil González was not risking. He boarded up the windows of his Tampa home with plywood and sandbags to protect against any flooding. He and his wife filled their car with bottled water, flashlights, battery packs for their cell phones and a camp stove before evacuating.

#Ian just shy of a Category 5 #hurricane as it approaches #Florida. Hurricane Ian

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

Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West were closed, as were Disney World and Sea World theme parks in Orlando before the storm.

A couple from England vacationing in Tampa were forced to ride out the storm in a shelter. Glyn and Christine Williams from London were told to leave their hotel near the beach when evacuations were ordered. Because the airport closed, they were unable to catch a flight home.

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

Her husband insisted that everything would be fine. “You know, you have to go with the flow,” Glyn Williams said. “So we’re very happy to do what we’re doing.”

The precise location of the landfall was still uncertain, but with tropical storm-force winds from Ian extending 175 miles (280 kilometers) from its center, statewide flash flooding was possible. Parts of Florida’s east coast also faced a storm surge threat, with isolated tornadoes raging in the storm well before it made landfall.

Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to prepare for days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents were evacuated from several Tampa-area nursing homes, where hospitals also moved some patients.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina could also experience torrential rain and some coastal storm surge through Saturday. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp preemptively declared an emergency and ordered 500 National Guard soldiers to prepare to respond as needed.

Before turning toward Florida, Ian slammed into Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and wreaked havoc on the island’s world-famous tobacco belt. No deaths were reported.

Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage to the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Río, tweeting photos of collapsed roofs, thrown debris and toppled trees. Some people left the affected area on foot, carrying their children, while buses tried to evacuate others through the flooded streets. Others chose to stay in their damaged homes.

“It was horrible,” said Yusimi Palacios, a Pinar del Río resident 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.”

Associated Press contributors include Christina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Freida Frisaro in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Fla.; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla.; Seth Borenstein in Washington and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York.

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