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Hurricane Ian nears Cuba on path to strike US’s Florida as Category 4

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HAVANA: Hurricane Ian moved near the Cayman Islands and closer to western Cuba early Monday on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane this week.
Ian was forecast to intensify rapidly and hit Cuba as a major hurricane late Monday, and then become an even stronger Category 4 hurricane over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida on Wednesday along a stretch of coast including the Tampa Bay area.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a Monday news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations Monday as Ian gained strength on approach to Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. Cuba also was shutting down its train system ahead of the worst weather.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane force winds, also life threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” U.S. National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press early Monday.
At 8 a.m. EDT on Monday, Ian was moving northwest at 14 mph (22 kph), about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west-southwest of Grand Cayman, sustaining top winds of 75 mph (120 kph).
In the Cayman Islands, members of the government and opposition were working together “to ensure that our people are made as safe as possible — the supplies, plywood, in some cases sandbags, are distributed so that they can safely weather this storm,” Premier Wayne Panton said in a video posted Sunday. “We must prepare for the worst and absolutely pray and hope for the best.”
“Ian is not expected to spend much time over western Cuba, and additional strengthening is likely over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday,” the center said. “Ian is likely to have an expanding wind field and will be slowing down by that time, which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida.”
A surge of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 cm) in isolated areas. That’s enough water to inundate low-lying coastal communities.
Florida residents were getting ready, lining up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and clearing store shelves of bottled water. As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said at a news conference Monday on preparations.
Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters. “We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
A hurricane watch was issued for Florida’s central western coast including the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough County suspended classes through Thursday to prepare schools to serve as shelters for evacuees. Additional watches for more northern areas along the peninsula’s west coast may be issued, Brown said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency throughout Florida and urged residents to prepare for the storm to lash large swaths of the state with heavy rains, high winds and rising seas.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida because of the storm.
Flash and urban flooding is possible in the Florida Keys and Florida peninsula through midweek, and then heavy rainfall was possible for north Florida, the Florida panhandle and the southeast United States later this week.
But in Monday morning’s forecasts, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane in a century.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that no one will be forced to leave even with what are called “mandatory” evacuation orders that are expected to begin Tuesday.
“What it means is, we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t do it, you’re on your own.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders. “This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.
The agency has advised Floridians to have hurricane plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.

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