(Reuters) — After days of preparation, Hurricane Ian began battering Florida’s Gulf Coast on Wednesday with high winds and drenching rain, prompting authorities to warn residents to stay indoors as the eye of the Category 4 storm lurked just offshore.
At 7 a.m. ET, Ian was about 80 miles southwest of Punta Gorda, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, the US National Hurricane Center said. It upgraded Ian to an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 hurricane, although it said the storm was expected to weaken slightly after making landfall.
“The storm is here,” Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference. “Stay indoors. Stay away from windows.”;
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis warned that people in four Gulf Coast counties were no longer safe to evacuate and urged residents to stay off the roads and stay inside.
“It’s time to buckle down and prepare for this storm. This is a powerful storm that should be treated as if a tornado was approaching your home,” he said. “This is going to be a nasty, nasty day or two days. This is going to be a tough stretch.”
Earlier this week, authorities told more than 2.5 million residents to evacuate their homes to higher ground. But some, like Mark Feinman, a professional musician in St. Petersburg, chose to stay.
“There’s absolutely nobody on the roads here,” Feinman, 36, said early Wednesday. “The sky is this strange, ominous gray, and you can feel the gusts of wind and the rain pounding every little moment. You can feel it in the air. My ears popped.”
Mr. Feinman said he does not regret his decision to stay; he feels his house is safe, and fortunately for him, the storm jogged south of earlier forecasts, which showed it hitting directly on the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
– We still expect it to be bad here. But I’ve boarded, put down sandbags. We are busy with supplies. I guess ready or not, it’s coming.”
A day earlier, Ian hammered Cuba, leaving the entire Caribbean island nation without power. It was expected to make landfall in Florida Wednesday afternoon at about 2 p.m. to the east in Charlotte County, about 100 miles south of Tampa and just north of Fort Myers.
The Miami-based National Hurricane Center warned that Ian would unleash wind-driven high waves, downpours that could cause coastal flooding of up to 12 feet along with intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes. The storm’s outer band already brought strong winds and rain to large parts of the Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning.
Florida’s highest-risk coastal zone is home to miles of sandy beaches, scores of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks, a favorite among retirees and vacationers alike.
About 78,000 Florida homes and businesses were without power early Wednesday, and tens of thousands more could go dark before the storm passes.
Deanne Criswell, administrator of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, said one of the biggest concerns was the safety of Florida’s large elderly population. Many have health and mobility problems or are in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities that are difficult to evacuate.
“We have many individuals who are … medically dependent on electricity. We know there will be power outages. That will be one of our big concerns, she told MSNBC.
Overnight and into Wednesday morning, Hurricane Ian battered the Florida Keys island chain to the southernmost shores of the state’s Gulf Coast with heavy rain and 40 mph winds, the National Weather Service reported.
On Tuesday, the storm hit Cuba, knocking out electricity for 11 million people and ravaging the western part of the island with violent winds and flooding. The grid – largely dependent on antiquated Soviet-era oil-fired power plants – was already fragile before the storm hit.
By early Wednesday, the state-run power utility said it had slowly begun restoring power across the eastern end of the island.