Millions Urged to Evacuate as Florida Gulf Coast Braces for Hurricane Ian

SARASOTA, Fla. (Reuters) —

Florida Gulf Coast residents emptied grocery shelves, boarded up windows and fled to evacuation shelters as Hurricane Ian churned closer on Wednesday, lashing the state’s southern tip hours before it was forecast to make U.S. landfall.

Ian has strengthened into an extremely dangerous Category-4 hurricane, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said on Wednesday. The NHC put the hurricane’s location around 75 miles (125 km) west-southwest of Naples, Florida, with maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour (220 km per hour).

Ian pummeled Cuba on Tuesday and left the entire Caribbean island nation without power, and was expected to crash ashore into Florida on Wednesday evening south of Tampa Bay, somewhere between Sarasota and Naples.

A Category-4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale carries steady winds of up to 130 miles per hour (209 km per hour). The first hurricane advisory on Wednesday had put Ian’s maximum sustained winds near 120 mph (195 km per hour), ranking it a Category 3, but said the storm was expected to strengthen.

By late Tuesday night, tropical storm-force winds generated by Ian extended through the Florida Keys island chain to the southernmost shores of the state’s Gulf Coast, according to the hurricane center.

The NHC also issued storm surge warnings for much of western Florida’s shoreline, predicting coastal flooding of up to 12 feet from wind-driven high surf.

“The time to evacuate is now. Get on the road,” Florida’s director of emergency management, Kevin Guthrie, said during a news briefing on Tuesday evening, urging residents to heed evacuation warnings.

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