HAVANA: Hurricane Ian strengthened into a Category 3 storm on Tuesday, the United States National Hurricane Center said, as Cuba and Florida — both in the storm’s likely path — ramped up preparations to deal with high winds and potential flooding.
About 50,000 people in Cuba’s western Pinar del Rio province moved to safer locations, 6,000 of them to state-run shelters and the rest to the homes of relatives and friends, local authorities said.
The NHC warned in an advisory issued on Tuesday at 2:30 am local time (0630 GMT) that Ian was intensifying and would “soon” make landfall in western Cuba.
“The maximum winds are now estimated to be 115 miles (185 kilometers) per hour with higher gusts,” it said, making Ian a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
In Florida, the city of Tampa was under a hurricane watch, and Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in all 67 counties as officials scrambled to prepare for the storm’s forecast landing on Wednesday or Thursday.
Ian “will bring heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge, along with isolated tornado activity along Florida’s Gulf Coast,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Tallahassee on Monday.
He warned people to prepare for power cuts.
“Even if the eye of the storm doesn’t hit your region, you’re going to have really significant winds, it’s going to knock over trees, it’s going to cause interruptions,” DeSantis said, warning of likely flooding.
The governor urged residents to stock up on food, water, medicine and fuel, and he called up 7,000 National Guard members to help with the effort.
Authorities in several Florida municipalities, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, started distributing free sandbags to residents to help protect their homes from the risk of flooding.
Tampa International Airport said it would suspend operations on Tuesday at 5:00 pm local time (2100 GMT).
President Joe Biden approved emergency aid to 24 counties in Florida through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
NASA said it was rolling back its massive Moon rocket into its storage hangar at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida due to the hurricane.
The Caribbean and parts of eastern Canada are still counting the cost of powerful storm Fiona, which tore through last week, claiming several lives.