By Holly Honderich & Alexandra Ostasiewicz & Charley Adams
in Washington, Florida and London

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Millions of people in Florida are bracing for life-threatening storm surges, catastrophic winds and floods as Hurricane Ian approaches its shores.

The powerful category four storm is expected to make landfall along the southern portion of Florida’s Gulf Coast later on Wednesday.

It has already knocked out power in Cuba and caused severe flooding in the Florida Keys.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has warned of a “nasty, nasty day”.

The hurricane has wind speeds of up to 250km/h (155mph), just shy of the threshold for a category five storm – the strongest classification.

Only two category five storms have made landfall in the US in the last 30 years.

Ian is “knocking on the door of a category five storm”, Mr DeSantis said, adding that bridge closures and 40,000 power cuts had already been reported.

The National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the storm was “rapidly intensifying”.

Ian was initially expected to make a direct hit on the Tampa Bay and St Petersburg region – the first direct hit on this area in 101 years – but the latest forecasts show the storm moving further south.


Striking the Tampa area would be a “worst case scenario”, said Richard Olson, director of the extreme events institute at Florida International University (FIU).

The Tampa region is among the most vulnerable places for severe flooding. Low elevation, rising sea levels, and a large population increase the risk of a catastrophic tidal surge and the area has all three.

Over the last 50 years, development has surged along the Tampa region’s nearly 700 miles (1,126km) of shoreline, with people and buildings scattered along the mostly low-lying beach.

“We’ve moved toward the coast, we’ve moved toward the water. This is, in its own way, a human nature trainwreck,” Mr Olson said. “It’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s a little better if it [Ian] hits south.”

Hurricane Ian was about 75 miles off the coast at 05:00 local time (09:00 GMT) when the NHC announced it had become a category four storm.

Predicted path of Hurricane Ian. Updated 28 September

People in the highest risk areas such as Charlotte county, where the hurricane is expected to make landfall, have been urged to “hunker down and prepare for the storm”.

Governor DeSantis said: “It’s no longer possible to safely evacuate”, adding that people should keep off the roads and make their way to shelters.

The area at highest risk spreads from Naples to the Sarasota region, said the NHC.

Tornadoes have already been seen in southern Florida, the National Weather Service said. Conditions were “rapidly deteriorating” along the south west coast of Florida at 06:00 local time (11:00 GMT), the NHC reported.

Ian is likely to lose speed as it nears Florida, effectively prolonging the storm’s effects and threatening up to 20in (1.6ft) of rain in some areas.

Governor DeSantis said there was a “major” recovery effort in place for after the storm has passed including emergency services and linemen.

He urged residents to be “cautious” and avoid hazards such as down power lines, standing water and damaged trees.

Mr Olson said his “constant worry” as Hurricane Ian neared the coast was “under-evacuation”, On Tuesday, police went door-to-door in some areas and asked people to leave.

A sign outside of a gas station reads, "we have water and gas" as residents prepare for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian on September 27, 2022 in St Petersburg Beach, Florida.
Image caption,Residents are buying supplies as they brace for the storm

Residents have been buying water bottles in bulk, boarding up windows and moving garden furniture inside. Schools and universities have also cancelled classes for the week.

Theme parks such as Disney World, Sea World and Busch Gardens in Tampa are closing as the storm bears down, while Nasa has postponed the planned launch of a moon rocket at Kennedy Space Center.

The Artemis I Moon rocket – which has already had its launch postponed twice – has been removed from the launchpad to the vehicle assembly building to protect it from the approaching storm.

As flights landed in Tampa on Tuesday, mobile phone alerts blared notifying residents of mandatory evacuation orders across the region.

In the airport, one man said he had not faced the prospect of a hurricane like this in his 43 years of living in the area. “It’s the calm before the storm,” he said.

A graphic explaining storm surges