Hurricane Ian pummels Florida’s Gulf Coast with catastrophic fury

The John Ringling Causeway as Hurricane Ian churns to the south in Sarasota, Florida, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Fallen trees and debris are seen in a parking lot as Hurricane Ian makes landfall in southwestern Florida, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS
A tree is uprooted by strong winds as Hurricane Ian churns to the south in Sarasota, Florida, on Sept 28, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
Palm trees sway in high winds as Hurricane Ian makes landfall in south-west Florida. PHOTO: NYTIMES
People venture into Florida's Tampa Bay, where the water drained as Hurricane Ian approached. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MIAMI - Hurricane Ian plowed into Florida’s Gulf Coast with catastrophic force on Wednesday, unleashing howling winds, torrential rains and a treacherous surge of ocean surf that made it one of the most powerful US storms in recent years.  

Crashing ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 150 miles per hour (241kmph), Ian quickly transformed an idyllic stretch of sandy beaches and coastal towns into a disaster zone inundated by seawater.

Early video images of the storm’s fury on local TV and social media showed floodwaters nearly reaching rooftops in some communities, sweeping away cars and the ruins of homes as palm trees were bent almost in half.  

Up to 30 inches (76cm) of rain is forecast to fall on parts of central Florida as the storm moves inland, threatening to cause extensive flash floods.

Nearly 2 million homes and businesses statewide were without power as of an hour before sunset, utilities reported.

“This storm is doing a number on the state of Florida,” said Governor Ron DeSantis, who asked US President Joe Biden to approve a major federal disaster declaration providing a wide range of US emergency aid to the entire state.

US border authorities said 20 Cuban migrants were missing after their boat sank off the Florida coast as Ian neared the coast on Wednesday.

There were no immediate official reports of other storm-related casualties.  

An unknown number of people were stranded in “high-risk” evacuation zones and in need of help after defying orders to seek higher ground, but rescue crews were unable to immediately reach them, the governor said.  

Having swept past Cuba on Tuesday, leaving it without power for hours, Ian made landfall in Florida at 3.05pm EDT  (3.05am Thursday Singapore time) on Wednesday near Cayo Costa, a barrier island just west of Fort Myers, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) reported.

The storm’s peak wind speeds put it just shy of a Category 5 designation on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the maximum classification. 

Ian then churned ashore on Florida’s mainland, south of the harborside town of Punta Gorda, with slightly diminished winds topping out at 145 mph.  

DeSantis said Ian had generated life-threatening storm surges – waves of wind-driven seawater rushing in along the coast – of up to 12 feet (3.7m) in some places.  

Forecasters also warned of intense thunderstorms and possible tornadoes.  

“This is a storm that we will talk about for many years to come, an historic event,” said Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service. 

The sprawling, slow-moving storm pushed farther inland as darkness fell, and within six hours of landfall was downgraded to Category 2, with top sustained winds of 105 mph (170kmh), the NHC reported.

Further weakening was forecast over the next day or so as Ian crosses the Florida peninsula on a north-easterly track, expected to reach the Atlantic Coast on Thursday afternoon. 

The region around the landfall is home to miles of sandy beaches, scores of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks, a favourite with retirees and vacationers alike. But the storm soon transformed idyllic coastal towns into disaster zones. 

An hour after landfall, video posted on social media and local TV stations showed water fuelled by storm surge rushing through several communities, nearly reaching rooftops.  

The town of Fort Myers Beach was nearly submerged by floodwaters. A view of Sanibel Island posted on Twitter showed the ocean rushing over a seawall and gushing into a resort hotel’s swimming pool.

Other video from the island showed roads inundated by the storm surge, rising to the tops of street signs.

Ian had knocked out power to at least 1.3 million homes and businesses in the first hours after landfall, local utilities reported.

In terms of its sustained wind speeds, which peaked at 155 mph before landfall, Ian ranks as one of the most ferocious hurricanes to strike the US mainland in recent years.

By comparison, Hurricane Michael came ashore in Florida’s panhandle in 2018 with steady winds of 155mph, while Ida last year packed sustained winds of 150mph when it landed in Louisiana.

Even as Ian lashed the coast in the final hours before it swept ashore, authorities warned residents it was too late for anyone who had yet to evacuate to safely do so.

Earlier this week, authorities told more than 2.5 million residents to evacuate.

Doug Coe of Venice was one of those residents who chose to ignore warnings and stay put. As he walked through rainfall on Wednesday morning, Coe admitted to never experiencing a storm of such magnitude, but he seemed unfazed by the impending threat.  

“You have to be vigilant because you never know what’s going to happen with it,” he said. “I’m staying vigilant, but trying not to worry.”

Most residents abandoned the area’s mobile home parks, taking refuge in local schools and other facilities converted to emergency shelters. The area’s numerous assisted-living facilities were mostly evacuated, too.

Heartis Venice, an assisted-living home north of Venice, was an exception. Of its 107 residents, 98 decided to stay put with staff and some family members, general manager Michelle Barger said.

The facility, opened two years ago, had stocked up in advance with food, water, medication and other provisions and was built to withstand a Category 5 storm, Barger said.  

“Our community is locked down. We’re secure and we’re prepared for this,” she said.  

The massive Category 4 hurricane made landfall shortly after 3pm local time.

Climate change is making hurricanes wetter, windier and more intense. There is also evidence that it is causing storms to travel more slowly, meaning they can dump more water in one place, scientists say.  

“Hurricane Ian’s rapid intensification could prove to be another example of how a warming planet is changing hurricanes,” said Kait Parker, meteorologist and climate scientist at IBM’s weather.com. “Research shows we are seeing this far more often than we did in decades past.” REUTERS

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