While Hurricane Ian Nears, millions in Florida said they were leaving

While Hurricane Ian Nears, millions in Florida said they were leaving

Written by Brendan O’Brien and Shannon Stapleton

TAMPA (Reuters) – Residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast on Tuesday packed their homes and headed for higher ground as Hurricane Ian approached, threatening a deadly storm and more than a foot of rain in some areas.

Before heading to Florida, Hurricane Ian hit Cuba, forcing evacuations, cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people, and flooding fishing villages.

About 2.5 million Florida residents were under evacuation orders or warnings as the sprawling storm made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane Wednesday evening somewhere along the Gulf Coast. A Category 3 storm has maximum sustained winds of 129 mph (208 kph).

The National Hurricane Center said Tuesday afternoon that the area south of Tampa near Sarasota is the most likely place for the eye to reach shore, while stressing that it is too early to be sure. This area – home to miles of sandy beaches and dozens of hotels and resorts – is a favorite with retirees and vacationers alike.

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John O’Leary, a jazz pianist from Tampa, said as he and his wife loaded up food, water, and family photos in their car before heading to his mother’s home in Palm Harbor, 25 miles (40 km) to the west.

O’Leary, 36, was one of thousands of motorists who hit the road as they fled low-lying areas in hopes of avoiding a life-threatening storm surge, which, according to meteorologists, could reach 12 feet (3.7 meters) in the Sarasota area.

“There is still uncertainty about where this exact landing will be, but just understand that the impacts will be far, far, much broader than just where the storm happens to make landfall,” Governor Ron DeSantis said.

Melissa Wolcott-Martineau, a retired magazine editor, heeded the warnings when she scrambled to pack her car with her valuables, two cats and a rabbit early Tuesday morning before the hurricane.

“I wasn’t particularly afraid until I saw the storm track this morning,” said Martino, 78, as she prepared to go to her son’s home north of Tampa. “It looks like the eye is going to come right over our house. Now I’m scared, so we’re leaving.”

If Ian hits Tampa, it would be the first hurricane to make landfall in the region since Tarpon Springs in 1921.

Despite warnings and orders, some residents refused to evacuate. “I will stay put,” said Vanessa Vazquez, 50, a software engineer in Saint Petersburg. “I have four cats and I don’t want to stress them out. We have a strong home.”

It may also be one of the most expensive, Enki Research said on its blog Tuesday, because the latest simulations show the estimated cost of storm damage and other impacts ranging from $38 billion to more than $60 billion depending on the exact path and severity.

Thirty school districts were closed either Tuesday or are scheduled to close by Wednesday, according to the Florida Department of Education. Many schools are also used as shelters during and after the storm.

Saint Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport – located on a vulnerable peninsula east of Tampa Bay, will cease operations at 1 p.m. Tuesday and Tampa International Airport will be closed at 5 p.m. Storm watch.

Tampa Electric warned customers to be prepared for “extended outages.” The company will conduct a “targeted outage” of service in a portion of downtown Tampa on the city’s western edge. That area has already been evacuated.

Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, has opened 45 evacuation shelters, with more than 600 people and their pets checking in, said Tim Dudley, director of emergency management.

Disney World closed several attractions before the storm while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League moved to Miami, where they will train this week before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

(This story has been paraphrased to correct a typo in the “threat” in the first paragraph)

(Reporting by Shannon Stapleton in Tampa and Brendan O’Brien in Washington; Additional reporting by Maria Alejandra Cardona in Tampa, Tyler Clifford in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frank McGorty and Lisa Shumaker)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.

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