At 11am local time, Ian was about 80km southwest of Punta Gorda, Florida, with sustained winds of 250 km/h, the US National Hurricane Center said.
That was just shy of a Category 5 designation, which is the most severe storm classification although Ian was expected to weaken after hitting land, the center said.
Forecasters say Ian would unleash wind-driven high surf, torrential rains that may cause coastal flooding of up to 3.7 meters along with intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes.
The storm’s outer bands were already bringing heavy winds and rains to much of the Gulf Coast on Wednesday morning.
“I wish this wasn’t a forecast that was about to come true. This is a storm that we will talk about for many years to come, an historic event,” Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, said.
The hurricane was expected to crash into Florida at 2pm (3.30am ACST) in Charlotte County.
The region is home to kilometers of sandy beaches, scores of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks, a favorite with retirees and holiday-makers alike.
“This is a powerful storm that should be treated like a tornado was approaching your home,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.
“This is going to be a nasty, nasty day or two days. This is going to be a rough stretch.”
Earlier this week, authorities told more than 2.5 million residents to leave.
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