By Nouran Salahieh, Jason Hanna and Christina Maxouris, CNN
More than 2.5 million Floridians were under some kind of evacuation warning Tuesday as Hurricane Ian marched closer to the state’s west coast after knocking out power across all of Cuba.
Southern Florida began feeling the storm’s first effects Tuesday evening, with rain and powerful winds whipping the region, and tornado threats which will last overnight. An apparent tornado at North Perry Airport in Broward County caused “significant damage” to several aircraft and hangars, Mayor Michael Udine said on Twitter.
The Category 3 storm was churning 120 mph winds Tuesday night with its center roughly 180 miles south-southwest of the city of Punta Gorda, close to where it’s expected to make landfall in less than 24 hours. City authorities there announced Tuesday night emergency services, including police and fire response will be suspended until after the storm passes, when it will be safe to resume response calls again.
For days, forecasters and Florida officials have warned this will be a dangerous storm with life-threatening storm surge and flooding and fierce winds. Tuesday night, Ian’s hurricane-force winds extended 40 miles out from its center and tropical storm-force winds extended roughly 140 miles out, with some parts of the Florida Keys reporting wind gusts stronger than 50 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“I implore, I urge everyone that is in an evacuation zone that has been asked to evacuate — the time is now. You must evacuate now. There will be a time when it will not be safe to travel the roads,” Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie warned in a news conference Tuesday evening.
“There will come a point in time when local public safety officials will not be able to respond to your cry for help. You may be left to fend for yourself,” he added.
Ian will likely make landfall Wednesday afternoon to evening between Sarasota and Port Charlotte as a Category 3 or Category 4 hurricane. (Hurricanes are designated as Category 4 when winds reach speeds of 130 mph to 156 mph.) Whichever of the two it is, one forecaster warned the storm still be a “large and destructive hurricane” for the state, urging residents to listen to local leaders’ advice.
And it’s not just southwest Florida taking a hit.
“This is going to be a lot of impacts that will be felt far and wide throughout the state of Florida,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said in Tuesday evening’s news conference. “As the storm moves in, you’re going to potentially have (evacuation) directives issued from folks in the interior of our state or even the east coast of the state for low-lying areas that absolutely could end up flooding.”
All of Cuba in the dark
Ian made landfall in Cuba earlier Tuesday as a Category 3 hurricane. Tuesday night, Cuban state media reported the entire island was in a nationwide blackout. Cuban officials said the hurricane caused the power outage and they hoped to begin restoring electricity late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Earlier, state electric company Unión Eléctrica de Cuba said they would keep power off in Havana to avoid deaths and property damage until the weather improved. The company said they had turned the power off in the area ahead of the storm to avoid electrocutions and to prevent fires.
Cuba’s tobacco-rich Pinar del Rio province lost power because of the storm, according to Cuban state television. Floodwater covered fields and fallen trees lay in front of buildings in San Juan y Martinez, a town in the province, images from state media outlet Cubadebate show.
Up to 16 inches of rain and mudslides and flash flooding were possible in western Cuba, the hurricane center said. Mayelin Suarez, a resident of Pinar del Rio city, told Reuters the storm made for the darkest night of her life.
“We almost lost the roof off our house,” Suarez told Reuters. “My daughter, my husband and I tied it down with a rope to keep it from flying away.”
‘It’s becoming too late’
Of the 2.5 million Floridians under some kind of evacuation directive, more than 1.75 million were under mandatory evacuation orders Tuesday afternoon. Most were in Lee County, which encompasses Fort Myers.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for parts of counties in the hurricane warning area stretching from north of Tampa to the Fort Myers area. That included Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties in the Tampa area, Hernando, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, and parts of Lee County. Emergency shelters have been opened.
In Pinellas County, where more than 440,000 people are under mandatory evacuations, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard told CNN Tuesday afternoon it was becoming too late for residents to leave.
“If you have not yet evacuated, if you have not yet gotten supplies, it’s becoming too late. You just need to shelter-in-place and wait out the storm,” the mayor said.
State agencies were also working to help prepare and protect senior residents, conducting on-site visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the path of the storm.
Ahead of the storm, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also issued a state of emergency Tuesday, warning of heavy rainfall and damaging winds in the state later in the week.
What the threats are
The approaching storm threatens several perils for west-central Florida:
• Storm surge: A storm surge warning — meaning the surge could threaten life — is in effect for much of Florida’s west coast, from Suwanee in the Big Bend region to the peninsula’s tip in the Everglades.
A warning also is in effect for far northeastern Florida’s coast, from near the Georgia state line down to Marineland, as well as for St. John’s River further inland.
The worst — 8 to 12 feet — is forecast for Florida’s west coast from just south of Bradenton down to Bonita Beach south of Fort Myers, the hurricane center said. Large storm surge also is possible in areas outside that zone, including Tampa Bay.
Forecasters in South Florida warned the storm surge could damage buildings and wash many away.
• Rain: Totals could reach 12 inches in the Florida Keys and south Florida and up to 24 inches for central and Northeast Florida.
“The storm, when it impacts land, yes it will weaken, but it will also slow, which means it’s just going to be churning out rain, moving at a snail’s pace,” DeSantis said. “That rain is going to pile up very quickly in different parts of southwest Florida.”
Many parts of the state are already oversaturated, officials said. More than double the normal amount of rain has fallen over southern Florida in the past two weeks, with widespread amounts of more than 6 inches of water dumped over some areas. Multiple rivers across central and western Florida are also already above flood stage as Ian makes its way to the state, boosting flood risks further.
• Damaging winds: A hurricane warning — meaning winds of at least 74 mph are expected — covers about 8 million people in parts of west and central Florida — including an area from the Anclote River north of Tampa to Bonita Beach south of Fort Myers.
The National Weather Service for Miami and South Florida said powerful winds could damage buildings and blow off roofs, completely destroy mobile homes and leave some locations “uninhabitable for weeks or months.”
“You’re really looking at a multihazard, multiday-long event here in much of the western and central Florida Peninsula,” Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CNN on Tuesday morning.
Closures, flight cancellations ahead of Ian
The hurricane’s menacing approach to Florida triggered preparations across the state as officials announced school closures and flight cancellations, and the military began moving ships and aircraft.
All along Florida’s west coast, officials are urging residents to get out of harm’s way instead of staying to protect their property.
Around the state, residents were waiting in long lines Monday to fill bags of sand or pick up bottled water in preparation for the storm’s arrival.
Resident Khadijah Jones told CNN she was in line for three hours Monday to get free sandbags in Tampa, uncertain if her home will flood. “Just doing the basics … securing loose materials in the yard, sandbags in low areas, and getting items to prep for no power,” she said.
As the storm approached a slew of closures and cancellations were announced.
The HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital in St. Petersburg announced it has suspended services and transferred patients.
Colleges and universities across the state — including Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and the University of South Florida in Tampa — are taking steps to prepare, including campus evacuations or shifting to online classes.
On the K-12 level, more than 50 school districts had announced closures by Tuesday evening.
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CNN’s Brandon Miller, Rachel Ramirez, Judson Jones, Pamela Kirkland, Patrick Oppmann, Amir Vera, Jamiel Lynch, Amanda Jackson and Robert Shackelford contributed to this report.