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Hurricane Ian is growing stronger as it heads toward Florida and governor warns time to evacuate is ‘rapidly running out’

Waves kick up under a dark sky along the shore of Batabano, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Hurricane Ian was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
Ramon Espinosa AP
Waves kick up under a dark sky along the shore of Batabano, Cuba, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. Hurricane Ian was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

(CNN) -- More than 2.5 million Floridians are under some kind of evacuation warning Tuesday as Hurricane Ian marches closer to the state's west coast and the governor warned the time to heed officials' warnings to leave is "rapidly running out."

The Category 3 storm, churning 120 mph winds Tuesday evening, is threatening the peninsula's west coast with life-threatening storm surge, flooding rain and damaging winds. And it appears to be growing stronger, with hurricane-force winds extending 40 miles out from its center Tuesday evening, which could mean more of Florida will be exposed to dangerous storm impacts once the storm moves onshore in about 24 hours.

"You're going to see impacts all the way to the east coast of Florida," Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a Tuesday evening news conference. "This thing is the real deal. It is a major, major storm."

Ian will likely make landfall Wednesday afternoon to evening between Sarasota and Port Charlotte as a Category 3 or Category 4 -- meaning at least 130 mph winds -- major hurricane. Whichever of the two it is, one forecaster warned it will still be a "large and destructive hurricane" for the state, urging residents to listen to local leaders' advice.

"This is going to be a lot of impacts that will be felt far and wide throughout the state of Florida," the governor said. "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."

"Heed those instructions," he added.

Ian made landfall in Cuba earlier Tuesday as a Category 3 hurricane. 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."

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.

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, which could see a surge of 4 to 6 feet, the hurricane center said.

It could rival the highest surge recorded in the Tampa Bay area, around 4 feet from 1985's Hurricane Elena and March 1993's "Storm of the Century."

• 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."

• 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.

"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.

Evacuations underway in Florida

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.

DeSantis warned of power outages as well as possible fuel shortages.

"Please heed those (evacuation) warnings. You do not need to evacuate to another state. You don't need to go hundreds of miles away. ... The important part is ... evacuate to higher ground that is going to be safe from the type of surge and flooding that we're fearing," DeSantis said earlier Tuesday.

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 PinellasHillsborough and Manatee counties in the Tampa area, Hernando, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, and parts of Lee County. Emergency shelters have been opened.

Officials around the region warned Tuesday rescuers may not immediately be able to help anyone who asks for help after staying in evacuation zones.

"We continue to hear folks saying, 'No, we've been through this before; we're going to stay home,' (but) you run (a) risk. As a firefighter, it's hard to get to you when there's a potential 10-foot storm surge and a foot of water that's dumped on your area," said Rob Herrin, fire and rescue spokesperson for Hillsborough County, which encompasses Tampa.

With tropical storm conditions starting Tuesday night, officials are concerned about Ian's storm surge. The Tampa Bay region is particularly vulnerable to storm surge and could see catastrophic damage from flooding -- even if the area doesn't get a direct hit from the hurricane.

Tampa International Airport was set to suspend operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday; Orlando International Airport was scheduled to do the same at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

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 approaches a slew of closures and cancellations have been 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, at least 26 school districts had announced closures as of Tuesday morning.

Disney World announced some temporary resort closures from Wednesday through Friday due to the weather conditions. At least three cruise lines also began rerouting passengers due to the hurricane.

Sign up for CNN's free Weather Brief newsletter to get email updates on Hurricane Ian.

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