TAMPA, Fla. (CN) — Millions of residents on Florida’s west coast faced evacuation orders on Tuesday as a major hurricane barreled toward them in what could be the most significant storm this part of the state has seen in years.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Hurricane Ian’s center was 200 miles southwest of Key West, moving north at 12 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. The hurricane has sustained winds of 125 mph, making it a Category 3 storm.
The NHC anticipates Hurricane Ian to make landfall around Venice, a small city just south of Sarasota, on Wednesday night as a Category 3 storm with winds up to 129 mph. Officials stress the threat of storm surge is significant, up to 15 feet in some areas, which prompted evacuation orders from Tampa Bay to Fort Myers.
“The Gulf is going to be very angry as this comes in,” Governor Ron DeSantis said during a press conference in Sarasota. “And so the danger to life and limb is really from that surge and from that flooding, more so than the wind.”
DeSantis said over 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders.
“This [forecast] is still not set in stone,” the governor said. “Anyone on the Gulf Coast should prepare for impacts.”
In Hillsborough County alone, nearly a half million residents were urged to leave their homes due to the threat of a 10-foot storm surge. In Pinellas County, all residents of barrier islands were urged to leave.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri implored people to get out while they still can.
“When we issue that mandatory evacuation, that means that if you don’t and you call for help, we’re not coming,” he warned. “If you don’t do it, you’re on your own.”
“I’m really worried,” said Michelle Haines, who lives in one of those barrier island communities.
“I’m less than a half mile from the shore,” said Haines, 57, as she drove to a friend’s house in Orlando. “I don’t know if I prepared the house enough, but I wasn’t going to take the chance staying, especially with my dogs.”
As late as Monday, forecasters estimated a direct and catastrophic hit to the Tampa Bay area. Despite the small shift south in the latest forecast, officials stressed this storm is the worst the area has seen since a 1921 hurricane that devastated the region.
“It’s been 101 years since the Tampa Bay area has experienced a storm of this magnitude,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister at a press conference in Tampa on Tuesday.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Hurricane Ian “is basically the worst-case scenario for this area.”
Some city streets already flooded on Monday afternoon from a typical afternoon storm, Castor said.
“Growing up in Florida, you always hear about people staying and having hurricane parties,” the mayor said. “This is not the time to stay.”
While speaking, Castor stepped away for a moment to take a call from President Joe Biden.
“He just wanted to ensure we had all the resources that we needed and really wishing us the best,” she said upon returning.
Biden issued an emergency declaration over the weekend that authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin coordinating disaster relief efforts.
During a White House briefing on Tuesday, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said Floridians will feel effects from the storm “for a very long time.”
“The main message I have for Florida is this is going to impact everyone in different ways, so you need to stay focused,” Criswell said.
Besides the storm surge, forecasters estimate up to 2 feet of rain in the affected areas. The storm is also expected to stall after landfall, which boosts chances of flooding in more inland areas.
As Hurricane Ian approached, residents and tourists along the state’s west coast scrambled to prepare. Shoppers emptied store shelves of water and nonperishable food. Car lines for sandbags stretched miles in some areas on Monday. Several hotels along the coast mandated guests leave by Tuesday.
“I got all my plants inside and cleaned my front porch,” said Sarasota resident Erica Nighswander. “I’m going over to my mom’s to ride it out. She is in a higher elevation area and already stocked up on supplies.”
Schools are closed in much of west central Florida through Friday. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco county courts are also closed. Tampa International Airport will close at 5 p.m. Power companies throughout the state are mobilizing resources ahead of the potential for massive power outages.
“I am more concerned about the inconvenience than the danger,” said Dorian Holmes of St. Petersburg. “I’m in a non-evacuation zone, but with Irma [a 2007 hurricane], we lost power for two weeks.”
“I’m not scared about flooding,” he said. “I’m scared of no AC for several days.”
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