Hurricane Ian is approaching Category 5 strength with top winds of 155 mph

Hurricane Ian unexpectedly intensified early Wednesday, reaching a top wind speed of 155 mph as it prepared to deliver a historic blow to Florida’s southwest coast.

The storm, which is just below the 157 mph threshold for Category 5 strength, is expected to make landfall Wednesday somewhere in an area from south of Fort Myers to north of Sarasota, according to an update. 7 am from the National Hurricane Center.

Estimates also rose sharply for storm surge, the wind-driven rise in sea level that can cause deadly flooding. The Fort Myers area could face a storm surge of up to 16 feet, well above the previous forecast. A larger area, stretching from north of Fort Myers to Sarasota, could face a storm surge of up to 10 feet.

“Catastrophic storm surge flooding of 12 to 16 feet above ground level along with destructive waves is expected somewhere along the southwestern coast of Florida from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor,” the hurricane center wrote. in a 7 a.m. update “Residents in these areas should urgently follow any evacuation orders in place.”

As of 6:30 am, the storm was about 65 miles west-southwest of Naples and 80 miles south-southwest of Punta Gorda, moving north-northeast at 9 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 40 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 175 miles. The storm is expected to bring up to 18 inches of rain in some areas.

Previous forecasts predicted the storm would weaken before making landfall, but the newest track predicts it will make landfall on Wednesday at the peak of its power.

Winds exceeding 39 mph tropical storm force reached Florida at 3 a.m. and hurricane-force winds were expected well before the eyewall moved inland, according to the National Hurricane Center.

A National Hurricane Center forecaster wrote in an advisory Tuesday night that if Ian reaches Category 3 or 4 strength, “avoiding a large and destructive hurricane for Florida appears highly unlikely, and residents should pay attention to the advice from local emergency management officials.”

The center of Ian is forecast to move over central Florida Wednesday night and Thursday morning and emerge over the western Atlantic late Thursday.

“Life-threatening storm surge is becoming more likely along the west coast of Florida, where a storm surge warning is in effect, with the highest risk from Naples to the Sarasota region,” the hurricane center wrote. On tuesday night. “Residents in these areas should listen to the advice of local officials and follow evacuation orders for their area.”

Ian spawned at least two tornadoes in Broward County Tuesday night, the National Weather Service said. Tornadoes followed similar paths over Weston, Sunrise, Davie and Cooper City, the weather service said.

A possible tornado near Kings Point Delray has downed trees, smashed cars and displaced 35 people.

Parts of Palm Beach and Broward were under multiple tornado warnings overnight Tuesday, and all of South Florida is under a tornado watch.

President Joe Biden announced the prepositioning of 3.5 million liters of water, 3.7 million meals and hundreds of generators and said he spoke with the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

“I told them, I mean it, anything you need, contact me directly,” Biden said Tuesday afternoon.

With life-threatening flooding expected and uncertainty about the storm’s path, authorities ordered evacuations across a wide swath of the coast. More than 2.5 million people are under evacuation orders in more than a dozen counties, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday night.

The forecast track of the storm moved southeast, increasing the risk to the Gulf Coast south of Tampa and threatening southeast Florida with more wind and rain. The region from Sarasota to Fort Myers could see a storm surge of up to 12 feet as the storm’s winds push seawater inland, the hurricane center said.

With the change in the storm’s forecast track, the chances of strong winds in southeast Florida increased, according to the National Weather Service in Miami.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties now have a 50-70% chance of sustained tropical-force winds, which means speeds of at least 39 mph. Palm Beach County has a 65-80% chance.

In a 6 p.m. report Tuesday, the National Weather Service said any further changes east of Ian’s track “could bring increasingly dangerous conditions closer” to South Florida.

All of South Florida can expect tropical storm conditions beginning Wednesday morning, according to the weather service update. Major flooding from rain is possible across the region through Thursday morning, along with the possibility of tornadoes through Wednesday.

Strong winds are likely to last through Thursday afternoon in Palm Beach County and from Wednesday morning to before dawn Thursday in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

DeSantis and Jared Perdue, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, said the Florida Highway Patrol and local law enforcement officials will close the bridges if sustained wind speeds exceed 40 mph. DeSantis urged people to consider potential bridge closures Wednesday in any evacuation plans.

Despite the attention paid to high winds, the biggest killer of hurricanes tends to be water. The hurricane center has warned that the Gulf Coast faces a high risk of storm surge, the rapid rise in sea level that can flood coastal neighborhoods.

Two to four inches of rain fell in southeast Florida in the past day with some areas seeing four to six inches, according to the weather service. Forecasters expect another four to eight inches to arrive over the weekend.

Ian’s outer bands continued to move over South Florida overnight and will increase in strength through Wednesday, and there could be significant potential wind impacts across much of Palm Beach County and western Broward County, according to the update. of the weather service.

Florida Power & Light has deployed 16,000 crew members to nearly two dozen staging, staging and pre-positioning sites across the state, FPL President and CEO Eric Silagy said Tuesday. They have already responded to outages caused by storm bands in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, he said.

Crews will continue to make repairs as needed until the winds become unsafe, he said. During the most severe part of the storm, crews are likely to remain protected for 12 to 20 hours.

The storm is expected to expand as it strengthens, putting a larger area at risk of high winds. These winds can snap tree limbs, down power lines and blow objects off the ground, the weather service said.

FPL reported that 4,880 customers were without power in Broward County as of 11 pm In Miami-Dade County, about 11,000 customers were without power and about 7,300 in Palm Beach County.

DeSantis said Monday night that many parts of the state are likely to lose power.

“We have said from the beginning that people will lose electricity and you have to be prepared for that. And it’s not going to be something that’s going to come back on automatically very quickly because it’s going to have extensive damage, and it’s going to have to have crews that can get in, the roads are going to have to be cleared,” the governor said.

The latest advisory from the National Hurricane Center said eastern Florida and southeast Florida will see 6 to 8 inches of rain with up to 12 inches in some areas. Central and northeast Florida could see 12 to 18 inches, with as high as 24 inches in some areas.

Forecasters are also monitoring an area of ​​stormy weather in the Atlantic off Africa that appears to be less of a threat to land. The system has a 70% chance of forming a short-lived tropical depression, the hurricane center said in its 8 pm update.

The next named storm to form would be Julia.

Hurricane season ends on November 30.

Staff writers Ron Hurtibise, David Lyons, Lois Solomon, and Scott Travis contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was also used.

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