TRACK, MODELS, SATELLITE: Hurricane Ian pummels Florida

Strong storm expected to strike Florida’s west coast

ORLANDO, Fla. – Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba as a major hurricane Tuesday and left 1 million people without electricity, then churned on a collision course with Florida over warm Gulf waters and strengthened into a catastrophic Category 4 storm.

As of early Wednesday, Ian moved to near Category 5 status west-southwest of Naples, Florida, and was moving north-northeast near 10 mph. Ian’s maximum sustained winds are near 155 mph, with higher gusts.

Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in the nation’s main tobacco-growing region. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Cuba suffered “significant wind and storm surge impacts” when the hurricane struck with sustained top winds of 125 mph (205 kmh).

[WATCH: Cone, models, satellite in video player above | FREE DOWNLOAD: News 6 Pinpoint Hurricane Tracker App]

Ian was expected to get even stronger over the warm Gulf of Mexico, reaching top winds of 130 mph (209 kph) as it approaches the southwest coast of Florida, where millions of people were ordered to evacuate.

Tropical storm-force winds were expected across the southern peninsula late Tuesday, reaching hurricane-force Wednesday — when the hurricane’s eye was predicted to make landfall. With tropical storm-force winds extending 140 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida.

It was not yet clear precisely where Ian would crash ashore. Current models show the storm making landfall south of Tampa Bay, possibly as far south of Port Charlotte.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged people to prepare for extended power outages, and to get out of the storm’s potential path.

“It is a big storm, it is going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in,” DeSantis told a news conference in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 that could be hit. “And you’re going to end up with really significant storm surge and you’re going to end up with really significant flood events. And this is the kind of storm surge that is life threatening.”

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Hundreds of residents were being evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients. Airports in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and Key West closed. Walt Disney World and Universal closed their Orlando theme parks on Wednesday and Thursday, as did SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay.

NASA rolled its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.

Forecasters said the surge of ocean water could reach 10 feet (3 meters) if it peaks at high tide. Rainfall near the area of landfall could top 16 inches (41 centimeters).

“It’s a monster and then there’s the confusion of the path,” said Renee Correa, who headed inland to Orlando from the Tampa area with her daughter and Chihuahua. “Tampa has been lucky for 100 years, but it’s a little scary now.”

Kelly Johnson was preparing to hunker down at her home two blocks from the beach in Dunedin, west of Tampa. She said she would escape to the second floor if sea water surges inland, and had a generator ready in case she loses power.

“I’m a Floridian, and we know how to deal with hurricanes,” Johnson said. “This is part of living in paradise — knowing that once in a while these storms come at you.”

Forecasters warned the hurricane will be felt across a large area as it plows across Florida with an anticipated turn northward. Flash floods were possible across the whole state, and portions of Florida’s east coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s bands approach the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of Georgia and South Carolina also could see flooding rains into the weekend.

As the storm’s center moved into the Gulf, scenes of destruction emerged in Cuba’s world-famous tobacco belt. The owner of the premier Finca Robaina cigar producer posted photos on social media of wood-and-thatch roofs smashed to the ground, greenhouses in rubble and wagons overturned.

“It was apocalyptic, a real disaster,” wrote Hirochi Robaina, grandson of the operation’s founder.

An Apopka family is bracing for the storm expected to hit Central Florida. They worry their property will be consumed by water following heavy rainfall.

State media published photos showing water flowing through the town of San Juan y Martinez. The western provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa were completely without power.

Local government station TelePinar reported heavy damage at the main hospital in Pinar del Rio city, tweeting photos of collapsed ceilings, toppled trees and debris flung about its property. No deaths were reported.

At the White House, President Joe Biden said his administration was sending hundreds of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees to Florida and sought to assure mayors in the storm’s path that Washington will meet their needs. He urged residents to heed to local officials’ orders.

“Your safety is more important than anything,” he said.

Hurricane season runs through November.

Check back for updates.

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About the Authors:

From chasing tornadoes and tracking the tropics, to forecasting ice storms and other dangerous weather, Troy Bridges has covered it all! Troy is an award-winning meteorologist who always prepares you for the day ahead on the News 6 Morning News.