As Tropical Storm Ian intensifies, Florida’s path remains uncertain

Tropical Storm Ian is expected to “rapidly intensify” later today, grow into a major hurricane over the next 48 hours and eventually hit Florida – but many questions remain, including when, where and how strong the storm will be.

In its 8 a.m. Sunday update, the National Hurricane Center said Tropical Storm Ian still had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph. The storm was located about 320 miles south-southeast of Grand Cayman and 590 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, and was moving west-northwest at 12 mph. A hurricane warning is in effect for Grand Cayman and a hurricane watch is in effect for parts of Cuba.

“The NHC intensification forecast calls for rapid intensification to begin later today, and predicts Ian will become a major hurricane as it approaches western Cuba in about 48 hours,” the NHC said in its initial update Sunday. By Tuesday, the storm is expected to become a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 120 mph and a Category 4 with winds of 140 mph by Wednesday.

Computer forecast models agree that Ion will hit Florida, but disagree on where. “There are still significant differences in the exact track of the storm, especially after 72 hours,” the NHC warned.

Two models, UKMET and ECMWF, show the storm could make landfall in west-central Florida. Two other models, the GFS and HWRF, show the storm moving west and taking Ian into the central or western Florida Panhandle. The NHC reported a difference of 220-250 miles between the model tracks in the Day 4 and Day 5 forecasts for Ion.

The Hurricane Center’s current forecast track for the storm essentially splits the difference between the different model suites with the NHC’s best guess.

“It cannot be overstated that there is significant uncertainty in the long-range prediction of Ion,” the NHC warned.

“Regardless of Ian’s exact track and intensity, there is a risk of dangerous storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rain along Florida’s West Coast and Florida Panhandle by midweek, and Florida residents should be prepared to implement their hurricane plans, follow any advisories issued by local officials, and “Keep a close eye on forecast updates,” the hurricane center said.

This satellite image shows the tropical storm turning south of Cuba on its path to enter the Gulf of Mexico early Sunday morning.

John Congialosi, a senior hurricane expert at the Miami-based Hurricane Center, said it was still unclear where Ian would hit hardest. Floridians should begin preparations, including gathering supplies for possible power outages, he said.

“The right message for Florida residents at this point is that you need to be prepared by looking at the forecasts and preparing yourself for the potential impact from this tropical system,” he said.

Throughout Central Florida, Residents spent part of the weekend preparing for Ian’s possible arrival.

A Target store near Millenia had very few gallons of water left on Saturday, with signs on the shelves saying only four cases or bottles were purchased per customer.

“This is the third store I’ve visited today,” said Maritza Osorio, who left Target for fourth place. “If not, try again tomorrow.”

By the Home Depot in the same plaza there was less traffic, with many carrying water in their carts while others bought plywood to use as shutters, among other things.

Top news from the National Hurricane Center about the tropical storm and its impact on Florida and elsewhere.

While it’s still unclear if Ian will hit Central Florida, or how hard he’ll hit it, guys like Gary Wilson aren’t taking any chances. He had his hurricane kit ready within weeks of the start of the season and was at Home Depot for final preparations.

“If something happens, I’m ready,” Wilson said.

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency for all of the Sunshine State — expanding an order he issued Friday to declare a state of emergency in two dozen counties. DeSantis also mobilized the National Guard to help with storm preparation and recovery.

“This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane and we encourage all Floridians to make their preparations,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We are coordinating with all state and local government partners to monitor the potential impacts of this storm.”

President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to help coordinate disaster relief efforts and protect lives and property.

Early reasonable arrival of tropical-storm-force winds from Ian.

The president postponed a planned September 27 trip to Orlando because of the storm.

Sentinel staff and Cristobal Reyes of The Associated Press contributed to this report

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