Hurricane Ian has made landfall in southwestern Florida, authorities said, as the massive storm lashed the US state’s Gulf Coast with powerful winds and heavy rainfall.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the Category 4 hurricane made landfall shortly after 3pm (19:00 GMT) on Wednesday near Cayo Costa, with sustained winds of about 240 kilometres per hour (150 miles per hour).
The storm’s wind speeds put it just shy of a Category 5 designation on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the most severe classification for storms, though Ian was expected to weaken a notch after coming ashore, according to the NHC.
Mandatory evacuation orders had been issued in a dozen coastal Florida counties, with voluntary evacuations recommended in several others, according to the state’s emergency officials.
Strong winds and rain have been hitting the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast, with the Naples to Sarasota region at “highest risk” of a devastating storm surge.
305 PM EDT 28 Sep — Hurricane #Ian has made landfall as an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane near Cayo Costa, Florida with maximum sustained winds at 150 mph. The minimum pressure from Air Force Reconnaissance Hurricane Hunters was 940 mb.
— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 28, 2022
“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned earlier in the day, stressing that people in Ian’s path along the coast should rush to the safest possible shelter and stay there.
Off the coast, on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, swirling water flooded streets and was halfway up mailbox posts by mid-morning. Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed over the end of a wooden pier at Naples.
“It’s going to get a lot worse very quickly,” DeSantis said. “So please hunker down.”
Ian made landfall in Cuba on Tuesday as a Category 3 hurricane, knocking out power, causing flooding, damaging houses and toppling trees.
State broadcaster Canal Caribe reported two deaths in Pinar del Rio, while most other media gave no figures on casualties, saying officials were still calculating the storm’s effect.
In Florida, 60 school districts had cancelled classes due to the hurricane, DeSantis said. More than 175 evacuation centres were opened statewide, the governor said, many of them school buildings converted to shelters.
Commercial airlines reported more than 2,000 storm-related US flight cancellations, with airports in Tampa, St Petersburg and Key West closed. Disney World theme parks and SeaWorld in Orlando all closed ahead of the storm.
US Air Force hurricane hunters confirmed that Ian gained strength over warm Gulf of Mexico water after battering Cuba.
The hurricane could push as much as 3.6 metres (12 feet) of ocean water ashore in Florida, the Miami-based NHC 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.
“Catastrophic flooding is expected across portions of central Florida with considerable flooding in southern Florida, northern Florida, southeastern Georgia and coastal South Carolina,” the NHC said.
If Ian strikes the Tampa area, it would be the first hurricane to make landfall there since the 1921 Tarpon Springs storm. The storm also may prove one of the costliest, with data modelling service Enki Research projecting storm-related damages ranging from $38bn to more than $60bn.
Houses are destroyed and some are floating away as Ian’s eyewall hammers southwest Florida. This is video from Fort Myers Beach, Florida off Estero Blvd by Loni Architects pic.twitter.com/6GqrxLRv9Q
— Kaitlin Wright (@wxkaitlin) September 28, 2022
Chris Pollone, an NBC News correspondent, told Al Jazeera on Wednesday afternoon that the storm so far had been focused on the Fort Myers and Sanibel Island areas, about 200km (125 miles) south of Tampa on the state’s western coast.
“That area is really getting pounded right now with high storm surge, also high winds, heavy rain,” Pollone said.
“They’re seeing cars floating in the streets, buildings are being overtopped by waves as this storm Ian pushes the water onshore.”
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 also were moving some patients.
Residents rushed in advance of the storm’s 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 on 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.”