(CNN) — Floridians are bracing for Tropical Storm Ian, which is expected to rapidly intensify into a hurricane this Sunday before hitting western Cuba, bringing with it the threat of high winds and storm surges of up to 3 to 4 meters, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Ian’s exact track after Tuesday remains unclear: The storm, which developed in the central Caribbean Sea on Friday, is expected to reach the United States later this week, but, with models showing a wide range of possible scenarios, it is too early to know where the storm will hit, when and how strong it will be.
Forecasters predict the storm will reach a Category 4 over the eastern Gulf of Mexico in three days, but Ian is expected to weaken before reaching Florida.
Still, Florida officials are urging residents to be prepared for the worst, with the hurricane center warning Sunday morning of a “risk of dangerous storm surges, gale-force winds and heavy rains along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle” by the middle of the week, regardless of the exact path of the storm and its strength.
“We’re going to continue to monitor the path of this storm, but it’s really important to highlight the degree of uncertainty that still exists,” Governor Ron DeSantis said at a news conference Sunday, warning residents that even if the storm weakens sooner if it made landfall, “it would still have significant impacts.”
Floridians can expect “heavy rain, high winds, flash flooding, storm surge and even isolated tornadoes,” the governor said. But the director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management focused especially on the storm surge threat, warning that any tide that develops while Ian is a major hurricane could linger as it approaches land, even if the storm weakens. .
“We could see a situation where we have a Category 4 storm surge and potentially a Category 1 or 2 hurricane at landfall,” director Kevin Guthrie said.
Anne Bink, associate administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Office of Response and Recovery, kept the message simple: “Get ready now.”
Floridians should know their evacuation routes and have preparedness kits that can last at least three days, Bink told CNN. “Things like food, water, battery chargers for your phone. Even things like your insurance documents, taking photos of them so you have them with you,” Bink said.
“We expect rapid intensification with this storm,” Bink said. “My message is: please take this seriously, and please listen to your local officials.”
Meanwhile, Ian is expected to become a major hurricane — a Category 3 or higher — by the time it passes near or over western Cuba, the hurricane center said Sunday morning, and forecasters are becoming more confident. that area residents will face life-threatening storm surge and gale force winds.
As of Sunday afternoon, Ian was about 260 miles south-southeast of Grand Cayman with maximum sustained winds of up to 50 mph (85 km/h), the hurricane center said, as the storm moved west- northwest about 12 mph (19 km/h).
A hurricane warning is in effect for Grand Cayman and several Cuban provinces, including Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Río and Artemisa, while a tropical storm warning has been issued for the provinces of Havana, Mayabeque and Matanzas.
The Cayman Islands government has issued tropical storm watches for Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, according to the hurricane center.
Tropical storm conditions are possible across Cuba by Monday afternoon, with hurricane conditions likely to continue late Monday through Tuesday, the hurricane center said. Ian is forecast to bring 6 to 10 inches of rain, with possible isolated totals of up to 16 inches in western Cuba. This could contribute to flash flooding or even landslides in areas of high ground. And a storm surge is forecast along the west coast of Cuba from Monday night to Tuesday.
According to the hurricane center, Ian will maintain its status as a major hurricane as it moves north through the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida prepares for a possible hurricane, floods and winds
Florida officials are distributing sandbags and asking residents to prepare their properties to reduce the risk of storm damage and stock up on supplies like radios, water, canned food and medicine. Residents should also pack important documents and know their evacuation routes.
“This is the calm before the storm,” Naples Mayor Teresa Heitmann told CNN on Saturday. “We experience this kind of adrenaline rush before a storm and the road could change at any moment, but we want our citizens to be prepared.”
DeSantis echoed that on Sunday, telling reporters at his news conference: “It’s better to be prepared and not have to use those preparations.”
To that end, DeSantis on Saturday expanded an emergency order to include every county in the state, saying conditions are “projected to constitute a major disaster.” President Joe Biden declared an emergency for Florida and ordered federal assistance to supplement response efforts. This Sunday, DeSantis announced that 2,500 National Guardsmen had been activated ahead of the storm.
St. Petersburg, southwest of Tampa, is in a vulnerable position as a “peninsula within a peninsula within a peninsula,” Mayor Kenneth Welch told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield on Sunday.
Despite the unpredictable course of the storm, Welch said he is encouraging residents to prepare at least a week’s worth of emergency supplies.
“As we watch the storm, certainly praying that it continues to move west, at the same time we ask people to prepare, to make sure you have a plan, to know your evacuation zone, to take care of those things like the food and water for seven days,” Welch said.
Any evacuation order will be given at least 72 hours in advance, the mayor said.
In Daytona Beach, Bethune-Cookman University issued a mandatory evacuation order and canceled classes Monday with plans to resume Tuesday. Concerns about Ian’s arrival have also delayed the third Artemis I rocket launch attempt scheduled for Tuesday. And in Cape Coral, Mayor John Gunter said the city’s emergency operations center was operating at an “enhanced level.”
“Right now, of course, we’re like a lot of other cities,” Gunter said. “We are preparing for the worst. Hoping for the best.”
Storm surge—when the force of a hurricane or storm pushes ocean water toward the shoreline—can be one of the greatest threats to life and property from a hurricane. This is the main reason Miami-Dade County residents are being asked to evacuate ahead of a hurricane, according to county officials.
“We’re out of the cone of uncertainty. We can’t relax,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava told CNN on Saturday. “We know there’s always a chance it could move. The storm has continued to move west. This is the time everyone needs to make sure they have a plan.”
Levine Cava urged residents to make sure they have enough food and water, and to check their storm surge planning zone.
“We’re very hopeful that even with a major rain event, we’ll be able to handle it,” he said. “We are on standby. We have additional pumps and have worked with the South Florida Water Management District to lower the canal levels.”
Miami-Dade County is preparing its “extensive shelter system,” including for those fleeing the Florida Keys if evacuations are ordered there.
Heitmann is already seeing lines at gas stations in Naples as residents prepare for the possible hurricane, he said.
“They’re taking it seriously, and I encourage those who don’t to always take a storm seriously, because you can never calculate which way that storm might turn. And we have to be prepared and if it doesn’t come straight into us, it can have strong winds,” Heitmann said.
In Sarasota, authorities are checking generators, planning with local police, trying to estimate how much flooding is possible and warning residents to be prepared, Mayor Erik Arroyo told CNN.
“Don’t underestimate the dangers that come with gusts, with storm surges, with floods, especially as we are a coastal city. So we tell them to go now, to prepare soon,” Arroyo said.
CNN’s Derek Van Dam, Taylor Ward, Michelle Watson, Hannah Sarisohn, Gregory Clary and Vanessa Price contributed to this report.