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Ian Now Category 3, Shifts South as Rains Sweep Florida

If the track holds — and forecasts stress that it may still change — it could reduce the flooding threat to Tampa Bay but raise it for coastal communities to the south like Sarasota and Cape Coral.

Nearly the entire state of Florida could see storm surges from Hurricane Ian. (National Hurricane Center/TNS)
National Hurricane Center/TNS
(TNS) - MIAMI — Hurricane Ian’s projected path shifted slightly Tuesday, on a track that would push the powerful storm to an earlier potential landfall south of the Tampa Bay area — a small but significant change for a Gulf Coast vulnerable to storm surge.

If the track holds — and forecasts stress that it may still change — it could reduce the flooding threat to Tampa Bay but raise it for coastal communities to the south like Sarasota and Cape Coral. Two days out from landfall, Florida was already feeling Ian’s first gusty, rainy bands.

In its 2 p.m. EDT Tuesday forecast, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Ian is expected to bring historic levels of storm surge to the Sarasota area. That area now faces higher predicted storm surge levels than Tampa Bay — potentially up to 12 feet above dry land. That’s in addition to up to 24 inches of rain for the central West Florida region.

The latest forecast also bumped up landfall to Wednesday evening, bringing a tropical storm warning to all of southeast Florida, including coastal Miami-Dade and Broward. South Florida was already seeing street flooding Tuesday morning, and officials urged residents of the Keys to take shelter as tornado warnings popped up.

Florida’s entire west coast could see devastating storm surge and intense rain for several days as the storm slows to a crawl along the coast.

Mandatory and voluntary evacuations have been called for more than half a million people in eight counties on Florida’s west coast, schools have closed in 16 counties (including Miami-Dade and Broward) and all of Florida remains under a federally declared state of emergency.

Florida Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie urged west coast residents to evacuate to South Florida and said to expect power to be out for up to a week in some parts of the state.

Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center, said in a Tuesday morning broadcast that Floridians are “starting to run out of time” to prepare for Ian’s arrival.

“Time is really ticking here. If you’re in the path of this storm and you’ve been ordered to evacuate, you really should do so. We’re really concerned about this area,” he said.

Rhome also urged those in the Tampa Bay region not to see the shifting track as a sign they’re all clear, but the region is still expected to see hurricane-force winds, substantial storm surge and heavy rains this week.

“A lot of people north of the track, especially you in Tampa, are going to say ‘the track’s shifting south, I’m out of this. No, you’re absolutely not,” he said.

As of a 2 p.m. update from the NHC, Hurricane Ian was about 265 miles south of Sarasota and about 85 miles south-southwest of the Dry Tortugas, back in the Gulf of Mexico after dragging through Cuba.

It was still a Category 3 storm with 120 mph maximum sustained winds and a wind field that stretched 140 miles from its center, a larger wind field than earlier Tuesday. It was heading north at 10 mph, a slowdown from Tuesday morning.

Ian’s center made landfall just southwest of La Coloma in the Pinar Del Rio Province of Cuba as a Category 3 with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday.

By Tuesday afternoon Ian was back in the Gulf of Mexico, where conditions are ripe for it to strengthen into a Category 4 hurricane with 140 mph winds. Forecasters expect it will then be battered by vertical wind shear and drier mid-level air that will likely lead to it weakening back into a Category 3 by the time it reaches Florida’s west coast early Thursday morning.

Ian is now forecast to be a Category 3 hurricane by the time it’s offshore of Sarasota, with a potential landfall near Venice late Wednesday night with 125 mph winds and gusts of up to 155 mph.

At that point, the hurricane center expects Ian’s forward speed to slow to 5 mph, prolonging the heavy rains and storm surge and overall giving the storm much more time to soak Florida as it inches inland.

Because of that major slowdown, Florida is expected to see a lot of rain this week. South Florida and the Keys could see 4 to 6 inches, while the Tampa Bay area could see more than a foot of rain, with up to 2 feet in some spots.

Rhome, acting director of the hurricane center, warned that Ian’s rains will arrive long before the winds will, which could lead to significant flooding risk hours before Hurricane Ian’s center nears the coast.

“A typical summertime thunderstorm here in Florida would put down 1 inch. Multiple that by 10 or 15,” he said.

Key West and Florida’s west coast are expected to start feeling tropical storm level winds Tuesday evening, and hurricane-force winds will hit the Cape Coral to Tampa area beginning Wednesday afternoon. They should be wrapped up by the end of the week, as Ian moves northeast across the state.

Nearly the entire state — except Southeast Florida and parts of the Panhandle — could see storm surge greater than 2 feet above dry land. The Sarasota area is the worst, with predictions for 8 to 12 feet from the middle of Longboat Key to Bonita Beach.

Michael Lowry, meteorologist for WPLG channel 10, wrote in his Tuesday newsletter that the severity of the storm surge forecast “cannot be overstated.”

“Ian has the potential for delivering the type of life-threatening coastal flooding this stretch of Florida hasn’t seen in modern memory,” he wrote.

For the east coast, this coincides with the annual highest tides of the year, king tides. It’s already accounted for in the NHC forecast, but the additional rainfall could lead to more intense flooding than usual for southeast Florida.

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