Hurricane Ian hits Florida as one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S.
By late evening, slow-moving Ian had weakened to a Category 2 storm
Hurricane Ian, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S., swamped southwest Florida on Wednesday, flooding streets and buildings, knocking out power to 1.8 million people and threatening catastrophic damage further inland.
A coastal sheriff's office reported that it was getting many calls from people trapped in homes. Desperate people posted to social media, pleading for rescue for themselves or loved ones.
The hurricane's centre struck Wednesday afternoon near Cayo Costa, a protected barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers. As it approached, water drained from Tampa Bay.
Before making its way through the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, Hurricane Ian tore into western Cuba as a major hurricane Tuesday, killing two people and bringing down the country's electrical grid.
Though expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it marched inland at about 14 km/h, Ian's hurricane-force winds were likely to be felt well into central Florida. Hours after landfall, top sustained winds had dropped to 170 km/h, making it a Category 2 hurricane.
Still, storm surges as high as two meters were expected on the opposite side of the state, in northeast Florida.
Sheriff Bull Prummell of Charlotte County, just north of Fort Myers, announced a curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. local time "for life-saving purposes," saying violators may face second-degree misdemeanor charges.
"I am enacting this curfew as a means of protecting the people and property of Charlotte County," he said.
Canadians urged to avoid travel to Florida
Jackson Boone left his home near the coast and hunkered down at his law office in Venice with employees and their pets. Boone at one point opened a door to howling wind and rain flying sideways.
"We're seeing tree damage, horizontal rain, very high wind," Boone said by telephone. "We have a 50-plus-year-old oak tree that has toppled over."
Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is urging Canadians to avoid all travel to the Florida Panhandle. Canadians in need of consular assistance in the area can call GAC's Emergency Watch and Response Centre at 1-613-996-8885, or text 1-613-686-3658. Individuals can also email email@example.com or get in contact via WhatsApp at +1-613-909-8881.
To date, Global Affairs Canada has received four consular inquiries related to Hurricane Ian, according to spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod.
Tied with 5th-strongest hurricane to hit U.S.
In Naples, the first floor of a fire station was inundated with about one metre of water and firefighters worked to salvage gear from a fire truck stuck outside the garage in even deeper water, a video posted by the Naples Fire Department showed.
Naples is in Collier County, where the sheriff's department reported on Facebook that it was getting "a significant number of calls of people trapped by water in their homes" and that it would prioritize reaching people "reporting life-threatening medical emergencies in deep water."
Ian's wind speed at landfall tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane to strike the U.S., along with several other storms. Among them was Hurricane Charley, which hit almost the same spot on Florida's coast in August 2004, killing 10 people and inflicting $14 billion US in damage.
'Not out of danger yet'
More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law, no one could be forced to flee. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams, and 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears.
Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board up their homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars leaving the shore.
Some decided to try and ride out the storm. Jared Lewis, a Tampa delivery driver, said his home has withstood hurricanes in the past, though not as powerful as Ian.
"It is kind of scary, makes you a bit anxious," Lewis said. "After the last year of not having any, now you go to a Category 4 or 5. We are more used to the 2s and 3s."
Ian made landfall more than 160 kilometres south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. Officials warned residents that Tampa could still experience powerful winds and up to 50 centimetres of rain.
"Please, please, please be aware that we are not out of danger yet," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video on Twitter. "Flooding is still going to occur."
Power outages anticipated
Flash floods were possible across all of Florida. Hazards include the polluted leftovers of Florida's phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than one billion tons of slightly radioactive waste contained in enormous ponds that could overflow in heavy rains.
Isolated tornadoes spun off the storm well ahead of landfall. One tornado damaged small planes and a hangar at the North Perry Airport, west of Hollywood along the Atlantic coast.
The federal government sent 300 ambulances with medical teams and was ready to truck in 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million litres of water once the storm passes.
"We'll be there to help you clean up and rebuild, to help Florida get moving again," President Joe Biden said Wednesday. "And we'll be there every step of the way. That's my absolute commitment to the people of the state of Florida."
DeSantis has requested that Biden grant a Major Disaster Declaration for all 67 of the state's counties, which would open a range of federal assistance for residents and funding for public infrastructure repairs. DeSantis has also requested that Biden allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide a 100 per cent federal cost share for debris removal and emergency protective measures for 60 days.
The governors of Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina all preemptively declared states of emergency. Forecasters predicted Ian will turn toward those states as a tropical storm, likely dumping more flooding rains into the weekend, after crossing Florida.
Cuba recovering after direct hit
Before turning toward Florida, Ian struck Cuba's Pinar del Rio province with sustained winds of 205 km/h. State media reported two deaths in the province: a woman killed by a falling wall and another by a collapsed roof.
The storm also caused destruction in the island nation's world-famous tobacco belt, including one of Cuba's most important tobacco farms, Finca Robaina.
"It was apocalyptic, a real disaster," said Hirochi Robaina, owner of the farm that bears his name and that his grandfather made known internationally.
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the affected region, telling the population, "Although the first impact is very painful, there's nothing to do but overcome the adversity."
Cuba's Energy and Mines Ministry announced it had restored energy to three regions by activating two large power plants in Felton and Nuevitas and was working to get others back online.
With files from CBC News