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Floridians brace for Hurricane Ian after Cuba blacked out

A strengthening Hurricane Ian's rain and winds lashed Cuba's western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida's west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

'Significant wind and storm surge impacts' expected in western Cuba, Ian set to strike western Florida

A strengthening Hurricane Ian's rain and winds lashed Cuba's western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida's west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

The storm made landfall early Tuesday in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba's main tobacco-growing region. Ian sustained top winds of 205 kilometres per hour, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center said the island's west coast could see as much as 4.3 metres of storm surge.

"Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall," hurricane centre senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.

After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 225 km/h.

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians faced mandatory evacuation orders as the centre expanded its hurricane warning to include Bonita Beach north through Tampa Bay to the Anclote River. Fort Myers is in the hurricane zone, and Tampa and St. Petersburg could get their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

"People on the barrier islands who decide not to go, they do so at their own peril," said Roger Desjarlais, Lee County's county manager, early Tuesday. "The best thing they can do is leave."

In Havana on Monday, fishermen were taking their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon seaside boulevard, and city workers were unclogging storm drains ahead of the expected rain.

Havana resident Adyz Ladron said the potential for rising water from the storm worries him.

"I am very scared because my house gets completely flooded, with water up to here," he said, pointing to his chest.

In Havana's El Fanguito, a low-income neighbourhood near the Almendares River, residents were packing up what they could to leave their homes.

"I hope we escape this one because it would be the end of us. We already have so little," health worker Abel Rodrigues said.

Florida braces for impact

Ian won't linger over Cuba but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, "which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida," the hurricane centre said.

A surge of up to three metres of ocean water and 25 centimetres of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 38 centimetres in isolated areas. That's enough water to inundate coastal communities.

As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.

"We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence," Wise said.

Hurricane &amp; Tropical Storm Warnings for <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ian?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Ian</a> are in effect for much of the west coast of Florida. Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion. Today is your last day to prepare and follow evacuation orders from local officials. <a href="https://t.co/cy01fM7Od6">https://t.co/cy01fM7Od6</a> <a href="https://t.co/qAwQAHpjDG">pic.twitter.com/qAwQAHpjDG</a>


Emergency declaration at state, federal level

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state's Gulf Coast.

"You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane," DeSantis said at a news conference. "That's going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You're going to have flood events. You're going to have a lot of different impacts."

NASA Worldview/Earth Observing System Data and Information System/EAP

DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighbouring states.

U.S. President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.

Playing it safe, NASA planned to slowly roll its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, while the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers were relocating football operations to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Federal Aviation Administration was reminding air travellers to check with airlines for flight status if they are scheduled to arrive in or depart Florida this week.

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