Hurricane Ian continues to strengthen and organize as its path takes it toward Florida's West Coast. In Tampa Bay, people are being told to evacuate their beachfront property as forecasters say storm surge will create massive problems for the state's third-largest metro area. FOX Weather's Nicole Valdes reports.
Visit the FOX Weather Wire for live updates on Hurricane Ian as it barrels toward Florida. Click here for the latest forecast, evacuation orders and more.
TAMPA, Fla. – At least 2.5 million Floridians are currently under some type of evacuation order as Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane early Wednesday morning as it approached Florida’s Gulf Coast, hours from an expected landfall.
"There's still uncertainty with where that exact landfall will be. But just understand, the impacts are going to be far, far broader than just where the eye of the storm happens to make landfall in some areas," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a news conference Tuesday morning. "There will be catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge."
Much of Florida's Gulf Coast, South and Central Florida is under Hurricane Warnings, including Tampa, Venice and Fort Myers, Naples and Orlando ahead of the expected wind, rain and storm surge from Hurricane Ian. Given Florida's unique coastline, the topography lends itself to the state being highly susceptible to storm-surge flooding during hurricanes.
Evacuations ordered along Florida's west coast
Several counties along Florida's west coast have already issued mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders, including Tampa Bay where 300,000 people alone are being told to evacuate their beachfront property as forecasters say storm surge will create massive problems for the state's third-largest metro area.
"In order to protect residents, we are issuing a mandatory evacuation order for Zone A, recommending a voluntary evacuation for Zone B and opening emergency shelters," Hillsborough County Administrator Bonnie Wise said.
As of Wednesday, Zones A and B remain under mandatory evacuation, Tampa city officials said as heavy winds and rains move through our area. Residents were warned to stay out of Zones A and B, shelter in place and stay off the roads.
According to the FOX Forecast Center, storm surge could reach as high as 10 feet along portions of Florida's west coast, though the entire western Florida coast is susceptible to some level of storm surge.
Storm surge is the rise of water levels caused directly by a storm and does not take into account rainfall or wave size, which can add additional feet on top of a storm's surge.
Wise said the evacuation orders and opening of shelters began at 2 p.m. Monday.
"We expect to have to evacuate 300,000 people, and that will take some time," she said. "That's why we are starting this today."
Evacuations haven't been limited to only Hillsborough County.
Many tolls across central-west Florida are suspended to make evacuations quicker. SunRail will close at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Check FL511.org for traffic conditions before you hit the road.
Wise also said issuing mandatory evacuations wasn't an easy decision to make.
"We did not make this decision easily," Wise said. "But the storm poses a serious threat, and we must do everything we can to protect our residents."
Wise said shelters should only be used as a last resort.
"They are not comfortable places," she said. "They could be crowded, and they could be noisy, and you could be in a shelter for days."
Instead, residents are asked to check with friends, relatives and co-workers who live at least 20 miles from the coast for a place to stay if needed.
"We're expecting sustained tropical or hurricane winds to our barrier islands and coastal communities for as long as 48 hours, with the earliest arrival predicted for 8 p.m. Tuesday," said Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes. "This is a worst-case scenario with a very strong, slow-moving storm just to the west of us."
Airports and ports to close
Officials closed the Clearwater-Saint Petersburg airport at 1 p.m. Tuesday.
Tampa International Airport closed a few hours later and will remain closed to the public. There will be no departing flights through Thursday, airport officials said.
Flight information boards at Orlando International Airport were covered in red as commercial operations ceased at 10:30 a.m. The airport activated their Emergency Operations Center as airport leadership stay on property to closely monitor the storm's path.
The airport will remain open to accept emergency/aid and relief flights, if necessary. Safety remains a priority, the airport said.
Port Tampa Bay will close at 8 a.m. Tuesday to marine interests. Officials said they will try to keep Port Manatee open throughout the storm.
Florida's attractions, theme parks announce closures
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay will be closed Wednesday and Thursday. All admission tickets have been extended through December 31. Extra precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of animals, park officials said.
Discovery Cove is also closed and will reschedule or refund reservations booked online or from the call center.
Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, Copper Creek Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Treehouse Villas at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and the Bungalows at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort will temporarily close Wednesday through Friday.
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon will close temporarily Wednesday and Thursday. Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf will also temporarily for the same dates. Park officials said Disney Springs is currently operating under normal conditions.
LEGOLAND Florida Resort closed their theme park, water park and Peppa Pig Theme Park. Tickets dated for 9/28-10/2 will be automatically extended through the end of the year. Vacation stays during this time can be rebooked without penalty.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urges Floridians to prepare now
DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida over the weekend, and President Joe Biden approved Florida's emergency declaration on Saturday.
"Regardless of Ian's exact track and intensity, there is a significant risk of life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of the week," DeSantis said at a news conference on Monday.
That approval authorizes the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts for the state.
DeSantis said preparations are well underway to position crews and equipment across the state to prepare for Hurricane Ian and to respond to clean-up efforts after the storm moves out of the region.
DeSantis said five urban search and rescue teams have been activated and will deploy to impacted areas.
The Florida Department of Emergency Management has also loaded 360 trailers with more than 2 million meals and more than 1 million gallons of water in preparation for distribution in areas affected by Hurricane Ian.
And with power outages likely, utility providers have more than 25,000 linesmen staged and prepared to begin power restoration efforts once it's safe to do so.
Florida activates National Guard
Because of Hurricane Ian, 5,000 members of the Florida National Guard have been activated and have been pre-positioned at armories across the state. In addition, 2,000 National Guard members from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina have also been activated to assist.
Nearly 300 ambulances, paratransit buses and other support vehicles have also been deployed to areas where Hurricane Ian could have a major impact.
"I know we've got a lot of people that have moved to the state of Florida," DeSantis said on Sunday. "Just make sure you make your preparations."
He also warned residents that power outages and fuel disruptions were likely due to Hurricane Ian.
"That's something that could happen with a hurricane of this magnitude," DeSantis said. "And also anticipate that in certain areas of the state, if you are in a very vulnerable area, there may even be evacuations that are issued."
Florida residents took the weekend to prepare for Hurricane Ian
"If it doesn't come, it doesn't come, but it's better to be prepared," said Tampa resident Jamie Cruz.
Cruz, like thousands of other Floridians, spent the weekend standing in line waiting for sandbags.
"I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn't know it would be that bad," he said about the line of people waiting for sandbags. "I waited in line for three hours."
Cars lined the streets around areas where sandbags were being distributed with the hopes that they could help save their homes from possible flooding from Hurricane Ian.
"Most of Tampa Bay is in low elevation," said St. Pete Beach resident David Beshears. "So, whether you're directly on the water or close to the water, it's worrisome."
The Beshears purchased their dream home on St. Pete Beach a year ago, and they're still renovating.
"The anxiety is definitely here," Michelle Beshears said. "For sure."
Schools closed as Florida prepares for Hurricane Ian
Many schools, colleges and universities have been closed for the rest of the week, so families could prepare for Hurricane Ian and allow officials to use those facilities as shelters for people fleeing the hurricane.
Schools have been closed in Charlotte, Citrus, Collier, Desoto, Dixie, Gilchrist, Glades, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Levy, Manatee, Marion, Monroe, Okeechobee, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, Sarasota, and Sumpter Counties.
Several colleges have also been closed: