(CNN) — Hurricane Ian keeps getting stronger as it barrels toward Florida, prompting urgent evacuations and threatening dangerous storm surges in places not used to getting hit directly by a hurricane.
Ian is now a Category 2 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, according to a 5 p.m. ET update from the Miami-based National Hurricane Center. The eye of the storm is located around 150 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba and Ian is moving north-northwest near 13 mph, the center said.
Florida could start feeling Ian’s wrath as early as Tuesday, with hurricane conditions potentially hitting the state Wednesday.
The center’s forecast for Ian “has shown an unprecedented rate of strengthening from a tropical storm to powerful hurricane,” CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller said.
Ian’s winds intensified from 85 mph Monday afternoon to 100 mph at 5 p.m. ET. Forecasters expect Ian to become a major hurricane before it lashes the US, with winds reaching 111 mph or greater.
Conditions in western Cuba are expected to deteriorate this evening and through the night, with “significant wind and storm surge impacts expected,” the hurricane center said. Strengthening is forecast to continue and Ian will likely be a Category 3 with winds of 120 mph or greater when it moves over Cuba Tuesday morning.
“Storm surge could raise water levels by as much as 9 to 14 feet above normal tide levels along the coast of western Cuba in areas of onshore winds in the hurricane warning area tonight and early Tuesday,” the center said.
In the US, more than 15 million people are expected to suffer at least tropical storm-force winds in cities including Tampa, Orlando, Tallahassee and Jacksonville, Miller said.
A storm surge warning has been added for portions of western Florida with 5 to 10 feet of surge possible, according to the latest advisory. The warning of “life-threatening inundation” stretches from Anclote River southward to Flamingo and includes Tampa Bay.
The current forecast track for Hurricane Ian puts all of the Tampa Bay region — Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Bradenton and others — on the right side of the storm, which would see winds push water northward into Tampa Bay, maximizing the inundation from storm surge. The current storm surge forecast for this area is up to 10 feet.
While projection models show a wide range of possible paths, one fear is evident: The Tampa area, on the western side of Florida, could get its first direct hit from a hurricane since 1921. And that could be devastating.
“The last major hurricane that actually made a direct hit was 100 years ago,” said meteorologist Rick Davis of the National Weather Service’s Tampa office. “So there’s a lot of people that have been brushed by hurricanes in the last five or 10 years in Florida.”
Davis added: “We tell people even if they’re lifelong Floridians like myself, this is something that we haven’t seen in our lifetime… So we definitely need to take it seriously.”
But the area doesn’t need a direct hit to see catastrophic damage from flooding. Tampa Bay is extremely vulnerable to storm surge because water being pushed into it has nowhere to go. The combination of mammoth storm surges and a stubborn, slow-moving hurricane could be disastrous for Pinellas County — home to Clearwater and St. Petersburg, officials said.
“The bad piece of news we got this morning is that this storm is trending to slow down, which means it could potentially sit on top of us for 47 hours,” said Cathie Perkins, Pinellas County emergency management director.
Officials are expecting 10 to 15 inches of rain, Perkins said.
Jamie Rhome, the National Hurricane Center acting director, told CNN Monday that Ian “would be the storm of a lifetime for many Tampa Bay residents.”
As Ian churns toward Florida, it’s expected to produce “heavy rainfall, flash flooding, and possible mudslides” in parts of Jamaica and Cuba,” the hurricane center said.
After passing Cuba, Ian will track through the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Tropical storm conditions are forecast to reach the west-central Florida coast Tuesday night, with hurricane conditions possible on Wednesday.
“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” forecasters said.
‘If you can leave, just leave now’
On Florida’s west coast, officials urged residents to flee instead of staying to protect their property.
“This is nothing to mess around with. If you can leave, just leave now,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Monday.
“You certainly could replace personal possessions. You can’t bring anyone back to life.”
Castor said 49 shelters are open, including some accepting pets and others accommodating residents with special needs.
“I want everyone to understand the seriousness of this situation,” Castor said. “We’re not trying to instill fear. We’re just asking everyone to be responsible, to be cognitive of what this storm can bring us.”
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued Monday for Zone A of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The Pinellas order goes into effect at 6 p.m. Monday, and the Hillsborough order went into effect at 2 p.m. Voluntary evacuation has been recommended for Zone B of Hillsborough, and emergency shelters are being opened, county administrator Bonnie Wise said Monday.
In Pinellas, mandatory orders for Zones B and C will go into effect Tuesday morning, a tweet from the country read.
Evacuation orders also went into effect for low-lying areas in Charlotte County as well as the counties of Sarasota, Hernando and Manatee.
“When we issued that mandatory evacuation, what that means is if you don’t and you call for help, we’re not coming because we’re not going to put our people in harm’s way and put them in peril because you didn’t listen to what we told you to do,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
“Nobody’s coming and knocking on your doors, nobody’s coming and taking anybody out when it says mandatory. What that means is you need to do it and if you don’t do it, you’re on your own. Please don’t put yourselves in that situation,” Gualtieri said.
MacDill Air Force Base issued an installation-wide mandatory evacuation by noon Tuesday for “non-mission essential individuals, including uniformed service members” and dependents, MacDill tweeted Monday. The base has about 6,000 military and civilian personnel, its website says.
Airports are beginning to prep for the storm as well. The last flight scheduled out of St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is scheduled to leave at 11:22 a.m. Tuesday, and at 1 p.m. the airport terminal building will close due to Pinellas County evacuation mandates. It will remain closed until the mandatory evacuation has been lifted for Zone A, at a minimum.
Nine flights were canceled out of Miami International Airport Monday ahead of the storm, according to airport spokesperson Jack Varela.
“MIA remains open and is not in the cone of concern,” a tweet from airport officials stated. “Flight operations are determined by the FAA and each individual airline. If you’re traveling soon, we recommend contacting your airline for flight updates,” said the tweet.
‘Everyone in Florida is going to feel the impacts of the storm’
While Ian is forecast to become a “major hurricane” based on wind speeds, storm surges can be even deadlier than the winds, said Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Hurricane-force winds can certainly do a lot of damage. But water — and potentially storm surges, in particular — is the hazard that has the potential to kill the most people in a hurricane — especially along the Florida west coast,” Brennan said Monday.
“We’re looking at the potential for — in terms of storm surge — inundation of up to 5 to 8 feet above ground level in this region.”
Heavy storm surge and torrential rain can lead to significant flooding mid-to-late week in central Florida and deluge areas as far south as the Florida Keys, forecasters said.
Ian is expected to dump 4 to 6 inches of rain on the Florida Keys; more than 8 inches of rain in west-central Florida; and 3 to 8 inches of rain on the rest of the Florida peninsula.
And forecasters predict parts of Florida will see the following dangerous storm surges:
Anclote River to Englewood, Florida, including Tampa Bay: 5 to 8 feet
Englewood to Bonita Beach, Florida, including Charlotte Harbor: 4 to 7 feet
Bonita Beach to East Cape Sable, Florida: 3 to 5 feet
East Cape Sable to Card Sound Bridge, Florida, including Florida Bay: 2 to 4 feet
Florida Keys including the Dry Tortugas: 2 to 4 feet
“Substantial rainfall over the past couple months has already increased river flows and filled area lakes” in Central Florida, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. “Heavy rainfall is expected Wednesday and Thursday of this week, and storm surge along the coast could be devastating.”
On top of the ferocious winds, rain and dangerous storm surges, “A few tornadoes are possible late Monday night and Tuesday across the Florida Keys and the southern and central Florida Peninsula,” the hurricane center said.
Virtually every Floridian will be affected by Hurricane Ian, the director of Florida’s division of emergency management said Sunday.
“This could be the storm that we’ve hoped would never come to our shores,” St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said Monday.
Pinellas County spokesperson David Connor told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota Monday what worries him most is people underestimating the size of the storm.
“One thing that’s easy to be misled by when looking at forecasts from the National Hurricane Center is how small that cone is compared to the real thing,” Connor said. “This storm is more than 300 miles wide. I mean, that’s the distance from our county to Mobile, Alabama.”
‘Make preparations now’
The Florida National Guard has activated 5,000 Florida soldiers and 2,000 additional soldiers from Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina have been activated in preparation for Hurricane Ian, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday.
DeSantis warned Sunday that the entire state should get ready for Ian’s impact.
“Make preparations now,” he said. “The things that you should be prepared with are things like food, water, batteries, medicine, fuel.”
The governor also warned of power outages — especially wherever Ian makes landfall — as well as possible evacuations and fuel shortages.
One model is projecting Ian to make landfall in the Tampa Bay region while another model is projecting landfall into the Panhandle, DeSantis said.
Colleges and universities across the state’s storm zone area — like Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and University of South Florida in Tampa — announced they were either evacuating campus, closing campus for the week, canceling classes Monday and Tuesday or moving classes online.
On the K-12 level, Hillsborough County Schools said it had “no choice” but to cancel classes as campuses morphed into storm shelters. Schools in the Hillsborough district will close through Thursday, the district tweeted Sunday.
Citrus County Schools, north of Tampa and St. Petersburg, will close Wednesday and Thursday, the school district said. Pinellas County, Pasco County, Manatee County and Hernando Schools are scheduled to close Tuesday and Wednesday. Schools in Polk, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Manatee and Hardee Counties will also close Tuesday.
Scrambling to get ready
As Ian heads toward Florida, residents are stocking up on supplies like radios, water, canned food and medication.
Residents in Tampa and other areas lined up for sandbags as they prepared for the storm Sunday.
Filling up bags of sand alongside other community members in Orange County, Jose Lugo told CNN affiliate WFTV he knows what can happen if the worst hits.
“It’s better to be prepared than sorry later,” Lugo said. “I was in Puerto Rico visiting my parents a couple days before Fiona hit. I was helping them out, and now I’m here helping myself and everybody else.”
Cities and counties throughout the state are also preparing.
Officials in Cape Coral, a city in southwest Florida known for its many canals, were particularly concerned about storm surge and winds.
“Right now, of course we are like many other cities, we’re preparing for the worst; hoping for the best,” Cape Coral mayor John Gunter told CNN.
Preparations were also underway in Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the activation of the State Operations Center on Monday “to prepare for any potential impact from Tropical Storm Ian later in the week.”