Hurricane Ian forms; part of Florida’s west coast under hurricane watch

Hurricane Ian formed early Monday, triggering a hurricane watch for Florida’s west coast from north of Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay.

As of 5 am Monday, Ian was closing in on Grand Cayman and Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, making it a Category 1 storm. Ian was 90 miles southwest of Grand Cayman and 315 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Both Cuba and Grand Cayman are under hurricane warnings.

The National Hurricane Center said Ian is forecast to quickly become a major hurricane by Tuesday, meaning Category 3 or above. If it were to reach major hurricane status, it would be the season’s second major Atlantic hurricane. Fiona, which dissipated Sunday as a remnant low, was 2022’s first major hurricane.

Experts predict Ian’s maximum sustained winds could ultimately reach up to 140 mph this week, which would make it a Category 4 hurricane.

Most of Florida continued to brace for the uncertain path of the intensifying storm.

In addition to the hurricane watch for part of west Florida, a tropical storm warning was in effect from Seven Mile Bridge to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas, meaning tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours.

The tri-county South Florida region still remains out of the current tracks for a direct hit from the storm, which is expected to be a major hurricane when it enters the Gulf of Mexico, and all Floridians should prepare for a major storm, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday.

On the forecast track, the center of Ian is expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands on Monday, and near or over western Cuba Monday night and early Tuesday. Ian will then emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

The weather service continues to emphasize uncertainty in the storm’s path once it enters the Gulf, and said the storm is expected to expand in size as well. The models show a possible direct hit to the Tampa area all the way through the Florida Panhandle.

In addition to the tropical storm warning for the lower Keys, a storm surge watch has been issued for the Keys from the Card Sound Bridge westward to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas, and for the west coast of Florida from Englewood southward to the Card Sound Bridge, including Florida Bay. A tropical storm watch has been issued for the west coast of Florida from Englewood southward to Chokoloskee.

Small changes in the path will make a big difference in the impact throughout Florida. In South Florida, widespread rain could lead to major flooding, accompanied by winds gusting up to tropical storm levels.

“Don’t get too attached to those cones,” DeSantis said in a news conference Sunday at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state.”

He said there could be heavy flooding on Florida’s east coast. And there’s no guarantee that the storm’s path will continue to move west as it has for the past two days.

“There’s uncertainty. The models are not in agreement,” he said. “Just don’t think if you’re not in that eye, you don’t have to make preparations. The last thing we want is to have it happen quickly and then have people who are not prepared. It’s better to be prepared and not have to use those preparations than the opposite.”

This includes having an adequate supply of food, water, batteries, medicine and fuel, he said.

South Florida is out of the cone of uncertainty forecasts where the center of a hurricane will be two-thirds of the time, said Shawn Bhatti, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. But subtle shifts in the track can make a huge difference, and the warm waters of the Gulf and possible land interaction with Cuba could create those shifts.

Most residents do not need to evacuate, emergency officials said. People should first look on to see if they are in an evacuation zone. If not, they should assess whether their home can withstand tropical storm- or hurricane-strength winds.

“In Hurricane Irma, we over evacuated residents by nearly 2 million people,” said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

DeSantis said to expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surges and even isolated tornadoes. He has issued a state of emergency for all 67 counties “given the uncertainty of the storm.” Previously, the state of emergency had been issued only for 24 counties, including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach.

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President Biden has also approved a federal emergency declaration for Florida, allowing it to access the resources of FEMA.

The state has waved restrictions for commercial trucks and authorized emergency refills of prescriptions or 30 days. DeSantis said he also activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard to assist with the emergency.

Meanwhile, forecasters say there’s a 40 to 50% chance a tropical depression could form this week from a broad area of ​​low pressure in the Atlantic off Africa. However, experts say it may be short-lived if it encounters upper-level winds, which hinder storm formation.

What was Tropical Storm Gaston had dissipated by early Monday.

The next named storm to form would be Julia.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30.

Staff writer Shira Moolten contributed to this report.

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