Hurricane Ian spurs evacuations as airports and schools close

(Bloomberg) – Hurricane Ian, expected to be one of the costliest storms in US history, has prompted mass evacuations, school closures and thousands of flight cancellations across the third largest state.

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The storm, which has already caused a nationwide blackout in Cuba, has top winds near 120 mph as it swirls over the southeast Gulf of Mexico, about 180 miles away (290 kilometers) from Punta Gorda, Florida, according to a notice from the United States. National Hurricane Center at 9 p.m. New York time. The storm is expected to strengthen through Wednesday, threatening to bring 6-foot storm surges to Tampa Bay and heavy rains across the southeastern United States.

Local media played video of interstate highways jammed with cars and trucks trying to flee vulnerable towns and villages along Florida’s west coast. Damage and economic losses in the region could exceed $45 billion if current forecasts come true, said Chuck Watson, disaster modeler at Enki Research. That would rank Ian as the eighth costliest US hurricane, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Previous estimates were higher when it appeared that Ian was going to hit Tampa straight.

The storm comes as climate change is fueling extreme weather around the world, including hurricanes that rapidly gain strength as they approach land. The year has already brought deadly floods to Kentucky, a heat wave that killed more than 2,000 people in Portugal and Spain, a relentless drought that gripped the western United States and a major hurricane that caused catastrophic damage from Puerto Rico to Atlantic Canada.

Hurricane-force winds extend up to 40 miles from Ian’s center and tropical-storm-force winds reach 140 miles, the agency said. The Florida Keys are expected to feel the wind start later Tuesday. Parts of central Florida could receive two feet of rain.

Winds from Ian are still expected to peak at 130 miles per hour over the next 12 to 24 hours, making it a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, the hurricane center said. Landing is expected Wednesday evening.

Ian already triggered nationwide flooding and a blackout on Tuesday when it made landfall as a Category 3 storm in western Cuba, the heart of the island’s tobacco industry. . The storm ripped off roofs, uprooted trees and flooded streets, with most of the damage concentrated in the westernmost province of Pinar del Rio. The national power system was no longer producing electricity as of 8:30 p.m. local time, according to state media Granma.

President Joe Biden told media at an event in Washington that he had approved requests for emergency aid from Florida. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed 700 personnel to the state and its governor has activated 5,000 National Guard soldiers from the state and another 2,000 are expected from other states, Biden said.

About 2.5 million people along Florida’s Gulf Coast have been told to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during a Tuesday afternoon briefing. Residents should brace for a major hit that could bring a historic storm surge on Wednesday, he said.

Tampa and the surrounding area are bracing for the storm, with evacuation orders now in place from Levy and Lee counties, a more than 240-mile stretch along the west coast. Ports around Tampa, St. Petersburg and Manatee have been closed, according to the US Coast Guard.

Duke Energy Corp., which supplies electricity to 1.9 million customers in the state, warned of extended power outages. Tampa Electric said it would proactively shut off power to low-lying areas of downtown Tampa to prevent its equipment from being damaged by salt water, but later backed off after the course change forecast of the storm.

Walt Disney Co. is closing its Florida theme parks Wednesday and Thursday, while SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has closed Busch Gardens in Tampa through Sept. 29.

Tampa International Airport announced a suspension of operations at 5 p.m. and American Airlines Group Inc. issued a travel alert for 20 airports in the Western Caribbean and Florida. Orlando International Airport was scheduled to halt flights Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. Airlines have canceled more than 2,800 flights to the region through Thursday.

U.S. carriers added at least 14 more flights to Florida cities on Tuesday as the hurricane approached, spokespersons said. United Airlines Holdings Inc. has also moved to larger planes to carry more passengers on one flight each to Tampa, Sarasota Bradenton International and Southwest Florida International to Fort Myers, spokesman Joshua Freed said.

The storm looks likely to intensify food inflation as Ian takes direct aim at crucial orange-growing and fertilizer-making areas. According to meteorologist Donald Keeney of Maxar Technologies Inc., at least 75% of the state’s orange groves are under threat. Meanwhile, Mosaic Co.’s major phosphate facilities east of Tampa are also under threat, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Alexis Maxwell said.

(Updated storm location in paragraph 2, scope of power outages in Cuba in paragraph 7.)

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