Hurricane Ian will strengthen, watches sent to Florida’s west coast

Hurricane Ian will strengthen, watches sent to Florida's west coast
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As Florida’s Gulf Coast braces for the first direct hit of the 2022 hurricane season on the continental U.S., Hurricane Ian packed winds of 75 mph Monday morning.

The storm is expected to strengthen rapidly and become a major hurricane Monday night with sustained winds of 120 mph and is expected to make landfall in western Cuba, the National Hurricane Center said.

Hurricane watches were lifted Monday morning for Florida’s west coast, from north of Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay.

Southeast Florida remains outside the cone that predicts the likely direction of the storm’s center. But tropical force and hurricane force winds can occur at the edge of the cone depending on how close it is to the edge of the center.

The National Weather Service said in a report Monday morning that South Florida has a 35 to 45 percent chance of tropical storms, meaning winds of at least 39 mph. The earliest those winds could arrive is Tuesday morning, though Tuesday night or Wednesday morning is more likely.

“Strong bands of near-tropical storm-force rain with wind and gusts are expected across South Florida tomorrow through Wednesday,” the weather service said. “Throughout this period, flooding and isolated tornadoes are possible throughout South Florida.”

Although the storm’s wind field is small, with tropical-force winds extending 90 miles from its center, it is expected to expand as the storm strengthens, exposing a wider area to the risk of high winds. According to the weather service, those winds can snap tree limbs, knock down power lines and send objects flying off the ground.

“While a direct landfall on South Florida is unlikely at this time, dangerous conditions could continue well away from the center of the system,” the weather service said.

As of 8 a.m. Monday, Ian was approaching Grand Cayman and Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph, making it a Category 1 storm. Ian was 90 miles west-southwest of Grand Cayman and 275 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba. Both Cuba and Grand Cayman are under hurricane warnings.

The National Hurricane Center said Ian was forecast to quickly become a major hurricane, meaning a Category 3 or higher, by Monday night. If it were to reach major hurricane status, it would be the second major Atlantic hurricane of the season. Fiona, which dissipated as a remnant minimum on Sunday, was the first major hurricane of 2022.

Experts predict that Ian’s maximum sustained winds could eventually reach 140 mph this week, making it a Category 4 hurricane.

Most of Florida continued to prepare for the storm’s uncertain path as it intensified.

In addition to a 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.

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

The National Weather Service continues to emphasize uncertainty over the storm’s path after entering the Gulf, and said the storm is also expected to expand in size. Models show a possible direct hit through the Florida Panhandle to the Tampa area.

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

Small changes in the road will make a big difference in impact across Florida. Widespread rain in South Florida could lead to major flooding with tropical storm-force winds.

DeSantis said he expects heavy rain, strong winds, flooding, storm surges and even isolated tornadoes. He declared a state of emergency for all 67 states “given the uncertainty of the storm.”

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President Biden also approved a federal emergency declaration for Florida, allowing access to FEMA’s resources.

The state imposed restrictions on commercial trucks and allowed prescriptions to be filled immediately or within 30 days. DeSantis said he has also activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard to help with the emergency.

Meanwhile, forecasters say there is a 40 to 50 percent chance of a tropical depression developing from a broad low pressure area in the Atlantic Ocean over Africa this week. However, experts say it could be short-lived if it encounters upper-level winds that prevent the storm from forming.

Tropical Storm Gaston dissipated early Monday.

The next named storm to form will be Julia.

Hurricane season ends in November. 30.

Staff writer Scott Travis contributed to this report.

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