Images of a storm that could have a “catastrophic impact” on the south eastern United States have emerged – and it’s even bigger and more dangerous that meteorologists expected.
There are warnings people “will not survive” the storm if they are caught by five meter high waves and winds of 250 km/h.
“This is going to be a storm we talk about for many years to come. It’s a historic event,” National Weather Service director Ken Graham said.
The category 4 Hurricane Ian is due to smash into Florida’s west coast on Wednesday afternoon US time (early on Thursday, AEST).
Ian has already passed through Cuba, wreaking damage and cutting off power. It then tracked up to the west side of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.
Impact is expected between the cities of Fort Myers and Tampa, the latter of which is close to the tourist hotspot of Orlando.
At noon in Florida (2am, AEST) winds of almost 160 km/h hit Sanibel Island, off the coast. In Tampa Bay, the water literally receded from the shoreline, sucked out by the hurricane. As the store nears, all that water and more besides will rush back in.
The US’ National Hurricane Center didn’t mince its words saying Ian would cause “catastrophic” storm surges, winds and flooding within the state.
That sentiment was echoed by Deanne Criswell from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There is going to be catastrophic impacts, and not just where we’re going to see the storm make landfall, but we’re also really concerned about all of the inland flooding because it’s bringing with it a lot of rain and it’s going to moves slowly,” she told CNN.
Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was blunter as he warned of even storm surges of up to 16 feet (5 meters) around the Fort Myers area.
“I’m six feet tall. That’s almost three times my height,” he said.
“It’s not the just the rise of the water from the storm surge, it’s the breaking waves on top of it that are going to be driven by those 155 km/h (250 km/h) winds.
“Those waves can destroy buildings. That’s not a situation you’re going to survive in,” said Mr Brennan.
Ian’s Eye Dwarfs Other Storms
Picture of the eye of the storm have rattled forecasters. Usually the eye – the heart of the storm – is relatively small.
Its eye is around 56 km wide. Hurricane Charley, which hit Florida in 2004 and killed 10 people, had an eye of just 11km wide before it struck land.
Indeed, the extant of Hurricane Charley could fit within just the eye of Hurricane Ian.
Once Ian hits land it is expected to curve its way north through the state and then into the Atlantic. But it’s possible it could then make landfall again around Georgia of South Carolina.
Airports in Tampa and Orlando have stopped all commercial flights, and some 337,000 Floridians are already without power.
On Tuesday, Ian plunged all of Cuba into darkness after battering the country’s west as a Category 3 for more than five hours before moving back out over the Gulf of Mexico.
The storm damaged Cuba’s power network and left the island “without electrical service,” state electricity company Union Electrica said.
Only the few people with gasoline-powered generators had electricity on the island of more than 11 million people.
Originally published as ‘Catastrophic’ Hurricane Ian bears down on Florida