By CRISTIANA MESQUITA
HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ian moved near the Cayman Islands and closer to western Cuba early Monday on a track to hit Florida as a major hurricane this week.
Ian was forecast to intensify rapidly and become a major hurricane as soon as late Monday before becoming an even stronger Category 4 hurricane over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking the west central coast of Florida on Wednesday.
Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and planned evacuations Monday as Ian gained strength on approach to Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane force winds, also life threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” U.S. National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press early Monday.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Ian should reach far-western Cuba late Monday or early Tuesday, hitting near the country’s most famed tobacco fields. Cuba state media outlet Granma said authorities would begin evacuating people from vulnerable areas early Monday in Pinar del Rio. Classes there have been suspended.
At 8 a.m. EDT on Monday, Ian was moving northwest at 14 mph (22 kph), about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west-southwest of Grand Cayman, according to the center. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph).
“Ian is not expected to spend much time over western Cuba, and additional strengthening is likely over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday,” the hurricane center said. “Ian is likely to have an expanding wind field and will be slowing down by that time, which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida.”
A surge of up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in isolated areas, was predicted for the Tampa Bay area. That’s enough water to inundate low-lying coastal communities.
Florida residents were getting ready, lining up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and clearing store shelves of bottled water.
A hurricane watch was issued for Florida’s central western coast including the Tampa Bay area, where Hillsborough County suspended classes through Thursday to prepare schools to serve as shelters for evacuees. Additional watches for more northern areas along the peninsula’s west coast may be issued, Brown said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has declared a state of emergency throughout Florida and urged residents to prepare for the storm to lash large swaths of the state with heavy rains, high winds and rising seas.
“We’re going to keep monitoring the track of this storm. But it really is important to stress the degree of uncertainty that still exists,” DeSantis said at a news conference Sunday, cautioning that “even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state.”
Flash and urban flooding is possible in the Florida Keys and Florida peninsula through midweek, and then heavy rainfall was possible for north Florida, the Florida panhandle and the southeast United States later this week.
The agency has advised Floridians to have hurricane plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida because of the storm.
Associated Press writer Julie Walker contributed to this report from New York.