Floodwaters raced down streets and engulfed lawns along Florida’s southwest coast Wednesday, courtesy of historic Hurricane Michael. Ian roared closer to the expected landfall in a few hours.
The storm’s eyewall was moving onto Sanibel and Captiva Islands, according to a noon advisory from the National Hurricane Center. Ian had grown to near-Category 5 strength, with 155 mph winds and mandatory evacuation orders issued for 2.5 million Floridians – though those who have not yet fled may be too late.
The National Weather Service reported a wind gust of 112 mph at the Naples Grande Beach Resort at 12:34 p.m. According to the tracking website poweroutage.us, more than 313,000 homes and businesses in South Florida were already without power. Power outages are expected statewide, according to Florida Power & Light.
AccuWeather predicts landfall this afternoon south of Venice and north of Fort Myers. The storm’s center was 35 miles west-southwest of Fort Myers as of 1 p.m. According to the National Hurricane Center, Ian will slam much of the state with life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, and flooding.
Ian’s incredible wind speeds were within 2 mph of Category 5, the highest level of hurricane intensity on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.
The storm was moving at 9 mph, according to National Weather Service Director Ken Graham, and was slowing down. He estimated that it would take 24 hours or more to cross the state due to “24 hours of rainfall and 24 hours of wind pushing the water.”
The hurricane center predicted that Ian would weaken after landfall, but it could still be a hurricane when it moves over Florida’s east coast on Thursday. And it could still be powerful as it approaches the coasts of northeastern Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina late Friday.
Heavy rain will fall across the Florida peninsula until Thursday.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency for the entire state and said up to 500 National Guard troops would be called up if needed.
Deanne Criswell, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says her main concern is the expected storm surge and inland flooding from heavy rains as the storm moves across Florida over the next two days. She urged residents throughout the state to heed local officials’ warnings about the “historic and catastrophic impacts that we are already beginning to see.”
The Waffle House chain, known for its waffles, smothered hash browns, and always-open doors, announced the closure of 21 Florida locations due to Ian. Since Ian became a named storm, the Waffle House Storm Center, a team that mobilizes during extreme weather, has been monitoring the storm’s path, according to Waffle House Vice President of Public Relations Njeri Boss. He said the chain was working around the clock with local governments and emergency responders to determine whether other locations needed to close.
The internet took notice. Ted Vician, a Twitter user, stated “Everything else is a precursor. The closure of Waffle House indicates that things are about to get serious.”
DeSantis warned that the west coast counties of Collier, Lee, Charlotte, and Sarasota were the most vulnerable. Charlotte County is expected to receive rainfall.
Tornadoes posed another danger. Twisters were possible across central and southern Florida through Wednesday night, according to the hurricane center. A possible tornado damaged at least ten mobile homes in Davie, a Broward County city of 110,000 people 25 miles north of Miami, according to CBS4-TV. Another possible tornado was also reported in Broward County.
“The risk of a few tornadoes should gradually increase across parts of central and east-central Florida this afternoon, with a potential focus from Lake Okeechobee northward to near Orlando during the next few hours,” the Storm Prediction Center said Wednesday.
Hurricane Ian, which hit the island’s western tip Tuesday as a Category 3 storm, knocked out the power grid and destroyed homes, businesses, and valuable tobacco farms, leaving Cuba in the dark early Wednesday. The Cuban Electric Union said in a statement that authorities were working to gradually restore service to the country’s 11 million people.
Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West were closed Wednesday. Orlando International was scheduled to shut down at 10:30 a.m., and at least 700 flights in and out were canceled by early Wednesday.