Cuba’s electricity grid has collapsed, leaving the entire country without power in the wake of Hurricane Ian, as residents in Florida braced for the arrival of what is expected to be a catastrophic Category 4 storm.
The western end of Cuba was hit by violent winds and flooding on Tuesday, affecting infrastructure, state-run media reported. Lázaro Guerra, from the Electric Union of Cuba, said people were working through the night and early Wednesday to restore power.
Meanwhile, businesses in Florida were shuttering and officials ordered 2.5 million people to evacuate before it crashes ashore Wednesday.
The powerful storm is heading directly for Florida’s south-western coast, after striking Cuba earlier on Tuesday with winds of 125mph (205km/h). The storm is expected to intensify in strength as it moves over the Gulf of Mexico and west of Florida’s southern tip on Tuesday night, before heading toward the Tampa Bay region.
Ian would be the first major hurricane to hit the US this year, and the first major hurricane to hit the Tampa area since 1921. Officials put the region under a hurricane warning on Monday night, alerting people of catastrophic storm surges, high winds and flooding.
“This is a life-threatening situation,” the National Weather Service said. “Persons located within these areas should take all necessary actions to protect life and property from rising waters and the potential for other dangerous conditions.”
The storm is already causing disruptions across the state with universities closing campuses for the week, while Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks were shutting down in preparation. Further north, Washington lawmakers postponed a public hearing in the January 6 investigation, acknowledging the severity of the situation and saying in a statement that they were “praying for the safety of all those in the storm’s path”.
Mandatory evacuations were issued for residents on the Tampa coast. Many scrambled to prepare for the worst. Distribution services for sandbags, used to alleviate flooding damage, were at capacity in one county. Grocery stores were selling out of bottled water. The Tampa international airport, which sees about 60,000 passengers daily, announced a suspension of services starting on Tuesday night.
More than a dozen oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico were evacuated, according to Reuters. BP and Chevron said they had removed personnel from two platforms.
In Cuba, the hurricane tore through the west of the country on Tuesday morning. Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Río province, where officials set up 55 shelters, evacuated 50,000 people, and took steps to protect crops in the nation’s main tobacco-growing region. The US National Hurricane Center said Cuba suffered “significant wind and storm surge impacts” when the storm struck.
Ian was quickly gaining monstrous strength as it moved over oceans partly heated up by the climate crisis, a scenario likely to become more frequent as the world gets warmer, scientists say.
Ian grew 67% stronger in less than 22 hours from Monday to Tuesday, and will likely become a Category 4 hurricane when it makes landfall in Florida, threatening a nightmare scenario. Ian’s rapid intensification occurred after it traveled over Caribbean waters that are about 1.8F (1C) warmer than normal, largely because of global heating. Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach said the warm water creates “a lot more rocket fuel for the storm”.
The current hurricane season had been uncharacteristically mild until about a week ago because of dry air in the Atlantic. Yet while storms aren’t necessarily more frequent, they are getting nastier, experts say.
“In terms of impacts and climate change, yes, this season could be a harbinger of sort of what is to come,” said University of Albany hurricane scientist Kristen Corbosiero.
The Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, declared a state of emergency on Sunday and has urged residents to follow evacuation orders. The governor mobilized 5,000 Florida national guard troops.
Tampa, St Petersburg and Clearwater are especially vulnerable to flooding from storm surges as Tampa Bay is shallow. In 2015, a Boston company that analyzes catastrophe models named Tampa as the city most prone to storm-surge flooding. It estimated that Tampa could see $175bn in damages. The region, home to more than 3 million people, has become a booming center for tourism, with 15 million visitors a year.
Experts have said for years that Tampa has been lucky to avoid a major hurricane. As seen throughout Florida, despite the risks posed by rising sea levels and storms made more powerful by climate change, luxury condominiums have continued to be built along vulnerable coastlines.
Hurricane Ian could deliver a worst-case scenario. The storm’s path could shift east, bringing it closer to the Tampa Bay. In that case, the area could see a 10ft storm surge, according to the US National Hurricane Center. If the eye of the storm stays west of the bay, the storm surge could still be about 5ft.
Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, told Fox News on Monday the NWS had described a slow-moving hurricane near the bay as a catastrophic situation. Rubio warned residents to take action.
“[It] doesn’t even have to make landfall over Florida, just stalls off the coast and pushes a bunch of water into the Tampa Bay region and into the western part of the state,” Rubio said, noting that storm surges in low-lying areas are “not survivable”.
The National Hurricane Center defines rapidly intensifying storms as those that gain at least 35mph in wind speed in less than 24 hours. Sudden changes can cause major problems for forecasters and emergency planners trying to help residents get out of harm’s way.
While hurricane seasons fluctuate year-to-year, when looked at over 10-year intervals, there are roughly 25% more rapidly intensifying storms in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific now than 40 years ago, according to an analysis of National Hurricane Center data by the Associated Press. From 2017 to 2021 there have been 30 rapidly intensifying storms in the Atlantic and 32 in the Eastern Pacific.
“That’s a staggering statistic,” said Jim Kossin, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate and hurricane scientist who now works for a private risk analysis firm. “What used to be a very, very rare event obviously has not been rare lately.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed reporting