By Holly Yan, Jennifer Gray and Nouran Salahieh, CNN
Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified Monday as it barreled toward Florida, threatening dangerous storm surges in places not used to getting hit directly by a hurricane.
Florida could start feeling Ian’s wrath as early as Tuesday, with hurricane conditions potentially hitting the state Wednesday.
Evacuation orders were issued Monday for some military personnel and residents, as Ian whipped 80-mph winds and churned northwest about 100 miles west of Grand Cayman, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center said.
“Rapid strengthening is expected during the next day or so, and Ian is forecast to become a major hurricane (Monday night) or early Tuesday when it is near western Cuba and remain a major hurricane over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday,” the hurricane center said.
Forecasters predict by the time Ian makes landfall in the US this week, it could be a major hurricane — with winds reaching 111 mph or greater.
While projection models show a wide range of possible paths, one fear is evident: Tampa, on western side of Florida, could get its first direct hit from a hurricane since 1921.
And that could be devastating.
“The last major hurricane that actually made a direct hit was 100 years ago,” said meteorologist Rick Davis of the National Weather Service’s Tampa office. “So there’s a lot of people that have been brushed by hurricanes in the last five or 10 years in Florida.”
And Tampa doesn’t even need a direct hit to see catastrophic damage from flooding. Tampa Bay is extremely vulnerable to storm surge because water being pushed into it has nowhere to go.
“So it just continues to pile water in into downtown Tampa, which is very vulnerable to storm surge flooding,” Davis said.
“We tell people even if they’re lifelong Floridians like myself, this is something that we haven’t seen in our lifetime,” Davis said. “So we definitely need to take it seriously.”
MacDill Air Force Base has issued an “installation-wide mandatory evacuation” by noon Tuesday for “non-mission essential individuals, including uniformed service members” and dependents, the base tweeted Monday. The base has about 6,000 military and civilian personnel, its website says.
A mandatory evacuation order has also been issued for Zone A of Hillsborough County, Florida, as of 2 p.m. ET Monday, the county administrator said Monday. And a voluntary evacuation has been recommended for Zone B, administrator Bonnie Wise said, adding emergency shelters are also being opened.
As Ian churns toward Florida, it’s expected to produce “heavy rainfall, flash flooding, and possible mudslides” in parts of Jamaica and Cuba,” the hurricane center said.
After passing Cuba, Ian will track through the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Tropical storm conditions are forecast to reach the west-central Florida coast Tuesday night, with hurricane conditions possible on Wednesday.
“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” forecasters said.
What to expect
While Ian is forecast to become a “major hurricane” based on wind speeds, storm surges can be even deadlier than the winds, said Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Hurricane-force winds can certainly do a lot of damage. But water — and potentially storm surges, in particular — is the hazard that has the potential to kill the most people in a hurricane — especially along the Florida west coast,” Brennan said Monday.
“We’re looking at the potential for — in terms of storm surge — inundation of up to 5 to 8 feet above ground level in this region.”
Heavy storm surge and torrential rain can lead to significant flooding mid-to-late week in central Florida and deluge areas as far south as the Florida Keys, forecasters said.
Ian is expected to dump 4 to 6 inches of rain on the Florida Keys; more than 8 inches of rain in west-central Florida; and 3 to 8 inches of rain on the rest of the Florida peninsula.
And forecasters predict parts of Florida will see the following dangerous storm surges:
Anclote River to Englewood, Florida, including Tampa Bay: 5 to 8 feet
Englewood to Bonita Beach, Florida, including Charlotte Harbor: 4 to 7 feet
Bonita Beach to East Cape Sable, Florida: 3 to 5 feet
East Cape Sable to Card Sound Bridge, Florida, including Florida Bay: 2 to 4 feet
Florida Keys including the Dry Tortugas: 2 to 4 feet
On top of the ferocious winds, rain and dangerous storm surges, “A few tornadoes are possible late Monday night and Tuesday across the Florida Keys and the southern and central Florida Peninsula,” the hurricane center said.
‘Make preparations now’
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the entire state should get ready for Ian’s impact.
“Make preparations now,” DeSantis said Sunday. “The things that you should be prepared with are things like food, water, batteries, medicine, fuel.”
The governor also warned of power outages — especially wherever Ian makes landfall — as well as possible evacuations and fuel shortages.
DeSantis activated the National Guard on Sunday, saying though the path of the storm is still uncertain, the impacts will be broadly felt throughout the state. State and federal disaster declarations were made over the weekend.
One model is projecting Ian to make landfall in the Tampa Bay region while another model is projecting landfall into the Panhandle, DeSantis said.
“Everyone in Florida is going to feel the impacts of the storm,” director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, Kevin Guthrie, told CNN on Sunday.
Scrambling to get ready
As Ian heads toward Florida, residents are stocking up on supplies like radios, water, canned food and medication.
Residents in Tampa and other areas lined up for sandbags as they prepared for the storm Sunday.
Filling up bags of sand alongside other community members in Orange County, Jose Lugo told CNN affiliate WFTV he knows what can happen if the worst hits.
“It’s better to be prepared than sorry later,” Lugo said. “I was in Puerto Rico visiting my parents a couple days before Fiona hit. I was helping them out, and now I’m here helping myself and everybody else.”
Cities and counties throughout the state are also preparing.
Officials in Tallahassee, the state’s capital, are working to remove debris and make sure the city’s power lines and stormwater systems are clear. “We’re doing everything we can on the front end of the storm to prepare and secure our infrastructure,” Tallahassee Mayor John Dailey said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Kenneth Welch said his city on Florida’s Gulf Coast is in a vulnerable position. “Even a tropical storm can knock our power grid down for an extended amount of time. We’re educating to be prepared and to plan,” Welch told CNN.
Officials in Cape Coral, a city in southwest Florida known for its many canals, were particularly concerned about storm surge and winds.
“Right now, of course we are like many other cities, we’re preparing for the worst; hoping for the best,” Cape Coral mayor John Gunter told CNN.
In Hillsborough County, Ian’s approach left the school district with “no choice” but to close all schools as campuses transform into storm shelters, according to Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach issued a mandatory evacuation order Saturday and canceled classes Monday due to the approaching storm.
Preparations were also underway in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the activation of the State Operations Center on Monday “to prepare for any potential impact from Tropical Storm Ian later in the week.”
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CNN’s Haley Brink, Judson Jones, Chris Youd, Carlos Suarez, Robert Shackelford, Melissa Alonso, Caitlin Kaiser and Michelle Watson contributed to this report.