Hurricane Ian leaves western Cuba battered, takes aim for Florida
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The powerful Category 3 Hurricane Ian battered western Cuba on Tuesday causing significant damage and prompting mass evacuations, with the storm expected to strengthen as it heads north towards the US state of Florida.
With maximum sustained winds of 125 miles (205 kilometers) per hour, Ian pummeled the island nation's western regions for more than five hours before its eye moved out over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Authorities have not yet been able to assess the damage, but residents described "destruction" and posted images on social media of flooded streets and felled trees.
No deaths or injuries have yet been reported.
"Desolation and destruction. These are terrifying hours. Nothing is left here," said a 70-year-old resident of the western city of Pinar del Rio in a message to his journalist son that was shared on social media.
Ian is expected to "keep heading northwards, gradually moving over the southeast of the Gulf of Mexico, moving its center away from Cuban territory," said the Cuba's Insmet meteorological institute.
The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Ian, classified as a major hurricane, made landfall just southwest of the town of La Coloma in Pinar del Rio province at about 4:30 am local time (0830 GMT).
About 40,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in the western province, which was bearing the brunt of the storm, local authorities said.
In the town of Consolacion del Sur, images captured by AFP showed downed power lines, flooded streets and a scattering of damaged rooftops.
An official at the state electricity company said power was out in the provinces of Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.
Those were two of the three provinces put on maximum alert Monday night.
- 'Storm surge' -
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders as officials scrambled to prepare for the storm's forecast landing on Wednesday.
"In some areas there will be catastrophic flooding and life threatening storm surge," DeSantis said at a press conference on Tuesday.
He urged residents to follow evacuation orders and warned that though Ian's exact path was still uncertain "the impacts will be far far broader."
"When you have five to ten feet (1.5 to 3 meters) of storm surge that is not something that you want to be a part of. Mother Nature is a very fearsome adversary." DeSantis said.
The governor on Monday urged residents to stock up on food, water, medicine and fuel, and he called up 7,000 National Guard members to help with the effort.
Authorities in several Florida municipalities, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa, have been distributing free sandbags to residents to help protect their homes from the risk of flooding.
Tampa International Airport said it would suspend operations on Tuesday at 5:00 pm local time (2100 GMT).
US President Joe Biden has approved emergency aid in Florida through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), while even NASA on the state's east coast took precautions, rolling back its massive Moon rocket into its storage hanger for protection.
Like DeSantis, FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell highlighted the danger of storm surge, saying it was the agency's "biggest concern."
"If people are told to evacuate by their local officials, please listen to them. The decision you choose to make may be the difference between life and death," she said.
- Fiona's wake -
The Caribbean and parts of eastern Canada are still counting the cost of powerful storm Fiona, which tore through last week, claiming several lives.
Half a million residents in the US territory of Puerto Rico were still without power, according to a tracking website, as the island's governor called on the federal government to waive a policy limiting which ships are able to dock there.
When Fiona arrived as a post-tropical cyclone in Canada on Saturday, it was still packing intense winds of 80 miles per hour, bringing torrential rain and waves of up to 40 feet (12 meters).
Storm surge swept at least 20 homes into the sea in the town of Channel-Port aux Basques, on the southwestern tip of Newfoundland, while three people are believed to have died.