Hurricane Ian rips into Cuba, with Florida in its sights

HAVANA, Sept 27 (Reuters) – Hurricane Ian slammed into western Cuba on Tuesday, forcing evacuations, cutting power to nearly 1 million people and tearing roofs off homes as it tracked northward toward Florida, where residents anxiously await the sprawling storm.

The Category 3 hurricane was nearing Cuba’s north coast in Pinar del Rio Province by mid-morning Tuesday, with maximum sustained winds of 125 miles per hour (200 km per hour), the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Mayelin Suarez, a Pinar del Rio resident who sells ice cream in the provincial capital, was still shaken Tuesday morning after a night she called “the darkest of her life.”

“We almost lost the roof off our house,” Suarez told Reuters. “My daughter, my husband and I tied it down with a rope to keep it from flying away.”

The hurricane hits Cuba at a time of dire economic crisis. Even before the storm, hours-long blackouts had become everyday events across much of Cuba and shortages of food, medicine and fuel are likely to complicate efforts to recover from Ian.

Ian is expected to strengthen further on Tuesday after cutting a swath through Cuba’s farm country west of the capital Havana and emerging over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, reaching Category 4 strength before it approaches the west coast of Florida, the NHC said.

Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio Province early on Tuesday, prompting officials to cut power to the entire province of 850,000 people as a precautionary measure and evacuate 40,000 people from low-lying coastal areas, according to local media reports.

Improvised metal roofs on homes and buildings throughout the region, where housing and infrastructure is antiquated and vulnerable, were scattered about streets and yards following the storm.

Palm trees were down along regional highways making travel near impossible at the height of the storm.

Pinar del Rio Province is a lightly populated region but a top producer of farm crops and tobacco. State-run media said farmers had secured 33,000 tonnes of tobacco from prior harvests ahead of the storm, though images on social media showed widespread destruction in many tobacco fields.

Rain and winds buffeted Havana early on Tuesday, but the city, under a tropical storm watch and preparing for a potential storm surge later on Tuesday, looked likely to be spared the brunt of Ian’s strongest winds.

Felix Hernandez, a 51-year-old night watchman at a liquor factory in the Cuban capital, said it was business as usual in the city. Early in the morning, street vendors were peddling avocado, and lines for chicken – an everyday phenomenon in Cuba – already stretched for blocks.

“We are incredibly fortunate Ian did not cross Havana because more than half of the city would have collapsed,” he said.

NEXT STOP FLORIDA
Hurricane Ian is expected to bring hurricane-force winds of up to 130 mph (209 kph) and as much as 2 feet (0.6 meter) of rain to the Tampa area starting early on Wednesday through Thursday evening, the National Weather Service said.

The storm surge could cause devastating to catastrophic damage with some locations potentially uninhabitable for weeks or months, the service warned, urging residents to move to safe shelter before the storm’s arrival.

Melissa Wolcott Martino, 78, a retired magazine editor in St. Petersburg, Florida, was hurriedly packing up her valuables and corralling her two cats and a rabbit early Tuesday morning ahead of the hurricane.

She and her husband and pets are going to evacuate as soon as they finish packing the car, heading to high ground at her son’s house north of Tampa.

“We’re right on the water, along a canal, so we know we’re going to just get flooded. This could be devastating.”

“I wasn’t particularly scared until I saw the storm track this morning,” she said. “It looks like the eye will come right over our house. Now I’m scared, so we’re leaving.”

The last major hurricane to hit the Tampa was in 1921, when the Tarpon Springs storm slammed into the area with winds of 120 mph, killing eight people, the National Weather Service said.

Disney World closed several attractions ahead of the storm until Friday while the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team relocated to Miami, where they will practice this week ahead of their game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

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