The National Hurricane Center said Monday that Tropical Storm Ian has strengthened into a hurricane — and warned it could rapidly intensify as it tracks toward Florida.
State of play: Ian — which could turn into a high-end Category 4 storm as early as midweek — was some 315 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba at 5am ET.
- Its maximum sustained winds had strengthened to 75 mph, up from 45 mph Sunday afternoon, according to the NHC. A storm is classified as a hurricane when its maximum sustained winds reach 74 mph.
Details: A Hurricane Warning was in effect for Grand Cayman and several Cuban provinces, as the storm moved to the northwest at 14 mph.
- A hurricane watch was issued along the west coast of Florida, including Tampa Bay.
- A tropical storm warning has been issued for the lower Florida Keys, from Seven Mile Bridge westward to Key West to Dry Tortugas, as well as several provinces in Cuba.
- A tropical storm watch was in effect for Englewood southward to Chokoloskee in Florida, and the Caribbean islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac.
The big picture: President Biden declared a federal state of emergency for multiple Florida counties on Saturday night, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency for the entire state.
What to watch: In its 5am update, the National Hurricane Center said Ian was expected to become a “major hurricane” — meaning Category 3 or above — by Monday night when it’s near Cuba.
- “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 Monday night and early Tuesday,” the agency said.
- The National Hurricane Center forecast two to four inches of rainfall from the Florida Keys into the southern and central Florida Peninsula from Monday through Thursday
- The western Caribbean Sea is a powder keg for hurricanes right now, with high ocean heat content and weak upper-level winds.
What they’re saying: Even if the west coast of Florida doesn’t sustain a direct hit from Ian, “it doesn’t take an onshore or direct hit from a hurricane to pile up the water,” acting NHC director Jamie Rhome said in a Sunday briefing.
- He urged Florida residents to find out if they’re in a likely evacuation zone at FloridaDisaster.org in case evacuations are ordered.
What’s next: The key questions facing forecasters, public officials and tens of millions of residents along the Gulf Coast are where the storm will head once it becomes a hurricane, and how strong it will be once it gets there.
- The computer models have been diverging, with some showing a landfall in northwestern Florida or perhaps southeastern Alabama. Others show a hit much farther east, closer to Tampa.
- Forecast trends since Friday have nudged the most likely track of the center of Ian to the west, closer to the Panhandle region of Florida.
- While the likelihood of significant impacts in South Florida has decreased, it has not entirely disappeared, and the Hurricane Center is urging all Floridians to prepare for storm impacts.
Context: Human-caused climate change is altering the characteristics of nature’s most powerful storms.
- For example, sea level rise from melting ice sheets makes a hurricane’s storm surge more harmful.
This story has been updated with the storm’s strengthening and the latest estimates of when the storm is expected to become a hurricane.