Florida was bracing for a “catastrophic” hurricane on Wednesday, as forecasters said it would make landfall with extremely strong winds and storm surges as high as 18ft tall.
The federal government prepared for search and rescue operations across the US state and electric utilities expected widespread power outages as Hurricane Ian churned towards Florida’s south-west coast. The storm was “on the threshold” of category 5, the most severe ranking, with maximum sustained winds approaching 155 miles per hour in a 35-mile radius, the National Hurricane Center said.
The “devastating” Ian will be “a storm we talk about for many years to come”, Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, said on Wednesday morning. The National Hurricane Center said that “Ian will cause catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding in the Florida peninsula”.
Millions of Florida residents are under evacuation orders, although Florida governor Ron DeSantis said on Wednesday morning that it was too late to leave Collier, Lee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, where the storm was already approaching.
Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest power utility, warned of “extensive damage to the electrical infrastructure” and predicted parts of its system would need to be rebuilt after Ian passed through.
Storm surges reaching from between 12 to 18ft were expected to hit the south-west coastline from Englewood to Bonita Beach, the US National Weather Service said. Tampa Bay, however, was drained on Wednesday morning as the hurricane’s counterclockwise winds blew out towards the sea.
US president Joe Biden said he had been in touch with DeSantis and the mayors of three cities — Tampa, Clearwater and St Petersburg — to tell them the federal government would do everything to help them cope with the impact of the storm.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent 700 officials to Florida and staged 3.5mn litres of water and 3.7mn meals in nearby Alabama, as well as having generators on hand and 128,000 gallons of fuel “ready for rapid deployment”, said Deanne Criswell, the agency’s director.
Fema has also deployed 300 ambulances and federal medical teams to Florida, and is tracking medical needs across the state’s hospitals, care facilities and dialysis centres.
Search and rescue co-ordination teams were staged in Miami alongside the US coastguard, officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of the Interior. DeSantis ordered the deployment of 5,000 members of the Florida National Guard, with an extra 2,000 expected from other states.
Federal officials are already dealing with the devastation caused by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico, which killed more than a dozen people and left hundreds of thousands without power.
Graham of the National Weather Service said the storm would slow down as it reached landfall, increasing the amount of rainfall received. Parts of the state are forecast to receive between 15in and 24in of precipitation.
He said that, while the leading cause of fatalities in strong hurricanes was flooding, the storm’s eyewall should be expected to cause a “devastating” amount of structural damage to buildings and power lines.