A weakened, but still formidable Hurricane Ian chugged across Florida toward the Atlantic seaboard yesterday after thrashing the state’s Gulf of Mexico coast with fierce winds, torrential downpours and raging surf that flooded coastal communities.
Ian blasted ashore with catastrophic force on Wednesday afternoon as a Category 4 hurricane, packing maximum sustained winds of 241kph, and quickly plunged the region’s flat, low-lying landscape into a scene of devastation. Ian’s winds, making it one of the most intense storms to strike the US mainland in the past few years, diminished significantly after nightfall. Within eight hours of its arrival, Ian was downgraded to Category 1 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with top sustained winds of 150kph, the US National Hurricane Center reported.
However, the sprawling, slow-moving hurricane continued to unleash drenching rains as it crept farther inland, threatening to trigger extensive additional flooding.
“This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who asked US President Joe Biden to approve a major federal disaster declaration providing a wide range of US emergency aid to the entire state.
There were no official reports of storm-related fatalities or serious injuries.
An unspecified number of people were known to be stranded and in need of help in “high-risk” areas after choosing to ride out the storm at home rather than heed evacuation orders, but they were beyond the immediate reach of rescue crews, DeSantis said.
More than 2.5 million residents had been told to evacuate.
Separately, US border authorities said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the coast as Ian neared Florida on Wednesday.
At 10pm on Wednesday, strong gusts and horizontal rains were still lashing Venice, a city of about 25,000 residents about 50km northwest of where Ian made landfall at the barrier island of Cayo Costa seven hours earlier.
Larger structures remained mostly intact, but small, residential areas off of Highway 41, a major artery through the area, were left in a shambles.
Downed trees and power lines covered roadways to the point that the asphalt was not visible, roofs were ripped off of some homes, and water was pouring into neighborhoods from seemingly all directions.
A large open lot in front of a Winn Dixie grocery store became a lake, with white-capping waters reaching the trunks of some vehicles parked there. Power was out in larger swaths of the area, with communications nearly impossible in many spots.
Ian was forecast to weaken further as it crossed the Florida Peninsula on a northeasterly track, and was expected to reach the Atlantic coast yesterday afternoon, possibly as a tropical storm.
However, Ian remained a potent force.
Up to 76 cm of rain was forecast to fall on parts of central Florida.
By late Wednesday night, the storm had knocked out power to at least 2 million homes and businesses statewide, utilities reported.
Having pummeled Cuba on Tuesday, leaving the island nation without power for hours, Ian swept into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico and reached its peak wind speeds of more than 260kph, just shy of a Category 5 designation, shortly before making landfall in Florida.
DeSantis said Ian had generated life-threatening storm surges — waves of wind-driven seawater rushing in along the coast — of up to 3.7m in some places.
Forecasters also warned of intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes.
“This is a storm that we will talk about for many years to come, an historic event,” US National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said.
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