As the rapidly intensifying Hurricane Ian hurtles towards Florida’s west coast after ravaging Cuba on Tuesday, millions have been ordered to evacuate.
The Category 3 storm battered western Cuba leaving the entire country without power on Tuesday night as the country’s electrical grid failed, shutting off the lights for the island’s 11.3 million people. The hurricane also caused significant damage and prompted mass evacuations in the island.
Meanwhile Florida is scrambling to prepare as the hurricane, expected to grow into a Category 4 storm, is set to make a landfall on Wednesday evening somewhere along the Gulf Coast. More than 2.5 million Floridians were under evacuation orders or warnings, while others have been stocking up on supplies. Tornados caused by the Hurricane are reportedly hitting the coast already and videos and photos showing small planes being flipped in south Florida have emerged.
WHAT IS HURRICANE IAN?
Hurricane Ian is a fast-growing storm which, on Monday was about 100 miles (160 km) west of Grand Cayman, barreling northwest toward Cuba with maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 km per hour), making it a category 1 hurricane at the time. Preparations against the hurricane were kick-started over the weekend with Cuba evacuating tourists and the Cayman Islands halting flights on Sunday.
The storm, which wrecked havoc in Cuba on Tuesday, had grown into a Category 3 hurricane with many predicting a further escalation to Category 4 on Wednesday.
The National Hurricane Center defines rapidly intensifying storms as those that gain at least 35 mph in wind speed in less than 24 hours. In Ian’s case, forecasters were warning about it days in advance as the conditions were obvious, as per the Associated Press.
A Category 3 hurricane is termed as a major hurricane with sustained wind speed of 111-129 mph. According to the National Hurricane Centre, in a Category 3 hurricane, “devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."
A Category 4 hurricane, which Ian is predicted to grow into, has sustained wind speed of 130-156 mph and leads to “catastrophic damage", as per NHC. “Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."
The approaching storm in Florida has prompted a storm surge warning, meaning the storm surge could be life threatening, with 8-12 feet forecast for Florida’s west coast, and alerts for heavy rains and damaging winds, as per CNN.
DEVASTATION IN CUBA
Cuba’s electrical grid collapsed late on Tuesday, local officials said, leaving the entire country in the dark shortly after Hurricane Ian plowed through the western end of the island leaving a path of destruction in its wake, as per Reuters.
With maximum sustained winds of 125 miles (205 kilometers) per hour, Ian pummeled the island nation’s western regions for more than five hours before its eye moved out over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Authorities have not yet been able to assess the damage, but residents described “destruction" and posted images on social media of flooded streets and felled trees. No deaths or injuries have yet been reported.
FLORIDA ON HIGH ALERT
Even as there is widespread uncertainty over the exact location where the hurricane will make a landfall, local media reports show small planes being flipped and tree uprooted in south Florida. A tornado warning was issued in areas near Broward County as small planes were flipped and trees uprooted in the area, CBS Miami reported.
Florida’s director of emergency management, Kevin Guthrie, urged residents in evacuation zones to move to safety on Tuesday. “The time to evacuate is now. Get on the road," he said, as per a report by Reuters. To ease evacuations, authorities had suspended toll collections along major highways in Central Florida, the Tampa Bay area and the interstate stretch across the Everglades known as Alligator Alley.
As per CNN, in Pinellas County, where more than 440,000 people are under mandatory evacuation order, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said 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," he said.
Ahead of the storm, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp also issued a state of emergency Tuesday, warning of heavy rainfall and damaging winds in the state later in the week, CNN reported.
Meanwhile, flights were cancelled and schools closed across the state in preparation for the apocalyptic storm. Tampa International Airport suspended operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday; Orlando International Airport is scheduled to do the same at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, CNN said.
CLIMATE CHANGE EFFECT
After getting 67 percent stronger in less than 22 hours from Monday to Tuesday, Ian is threatening Florida as a likely Category 4 hurricane.
Ian’s rapid intensification occurred after it moved over Caribbean waters that are about 1 degree Celsius warmer than normal, largely because of climate change, as per Associated Press.
As the world gets warmer, this ‘turbocharging’ of storms is likely to become even more frequent, scientists say.
A similar phenomenon played out in the Philippines this weekend with super Typhoon Noru exploding with breath-taking speed on its final approach toward the island nation, going from the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane to a category 5 overnight, giving locals no time to prepare, the CNN reported.
Ian’s forecast has been out for days however, meaning residents of Cuba and now Florida are better prepared.
Rapid intensification has historically been a rare phenomenon, Allison Wing, an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Florida State University, told CNN, stating that only six percent or so of all forecast time periods have such rapid intensification rates.
But human-caused climate change is leading to more intense storms which are not only generating more rainfall and larger storm surge, but are also more likely to be stronger and intensify faster.
Hurricane Ian is predicted to hit Florida’s coast on Wednesday night.
(With agency inputs)