Tropical Storm Ian strengthened into a hurricane Monday while racing across the Caribbean toward Cuba and threatening a big hit to Florida's west coast later in the week.
At 5 a.m. EDT on Monday, Ian was moving northwest at 13 mph, about 90 miles southwest of Grand Cayman, according to the National Hurricane Center. It had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.
Ian was forecast to intensify rapidly and become a major hurricane as soon as late Monday.
As Ian approaches Florida, Accuweather said the storm could reach Category 4 status, which means sustained winds between 130 mph and 156 mph.
"In just a few days, Ian is likely to be a dangerous, major hurricane," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Adam Douty said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged residents to load up on food, water, medicine, batteries and fuel. He said it was too soon to determine when or even if Ian will make landfall, but that evacuations may be ordered in coming days.
"Expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge and even isolated tornadoes. Make preparations now," he said Sunday. "Anticipate power outages. That is something that is likely to happen with a hurricane of this magnitude."
The National Hurricane Center issued a tropical storm watch for the lower Florida Keys Sunday.
"Significant" wind and storm surge damage was expected across a wide swath of the Atlantic Basin, and the Cuban government upgraded the hurricane watch to warning.
Such storms can cause "catastrophic" damage, with power outages that can last weeks or possibly months, according to the National Weather Service description. Areas can be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the weather service says.
“Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state," DeSantis said.
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Storm could drive heavy rains all week
Heavy rainfall may affect north Florida, the Florida panhandle and the southeast United States through Saturday, the weather service update said. Flooding and rising area streams and rivers across the region "can't be ruled out" later this week, especially in central Florida due to already saturated conditions, the updated warned.
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East coast of Florida not in the clear
Though the track had shifted westward, parts of the state's east coast remained solidly within the edges of Ian's forecast cone Sunday. Melbourne resident Pat Alderman wasn't taking any changes, buying ten 50-pound bags of sand, along with 50 empty sandbags, at Lowe's in West Melbourne to fortify her back patio door against floodwaters. She has a backyard pond, and her soils are saturated with recent rainfall.
Alderman, shopping at Lowe's on Sunday, said she had a generator and roll-down shutters – no need to board her windows.
"This is from decades of living in Florida," she said. 'If you've lived here for a while, you need to have all these things. Transplants don't understand."
In Tampa, stocking up on water and sandbags
John Cangialosi, a senior hurricane specialist at hurricane center, said Floridians should begin preparations, including gathering supplies for potential power outages, he said.
"For those in Florida, it’s still time to prepare," he said. "I’m not telling you to put up your shutters yet or do anything like that, but it’s still time to get your supplies."
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said city sandbag sites were open. She urged residents to shop for several days of necessities now and to check family disaster kits and plans.
"Are you #TampaReady?" she tweeted. "It’s never too early to prepare."
Residents agreed. Shoppers at a Walmart Supercenter Tampa were stocking up on supplies – and wiped out almost 1,000 cases of bottled water in a few hours Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
NASA postpones launch, considers stashing rocket
NASA said Sunday that it was monitoring Tropical Storm Ian, but had not determined whether it would roll back the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to the protection of the assembly building. The agency said it would "prioritize the agency’s people and hardware." NASA managers, who canceled a launch set for Tuesday due to the storm, planned to meet Sunday night to evaluate whether to keep the vehicle at the launch pad to preserve an opportunity for a launch attempt on Oct. 2.
The latest information provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Space Force, and the National Hurricane Center indicated a "slower moving and potentially more westerly track of the storm than yesterday’s predictions showed, providing more time for the agency’s decision making process," NASA said in a statement.
Bethune-Cookman University orders evacuation
Bethune-Cookman University canceled classes Monday and said they would reconvene remotely on Tuesday.
"As a precaution, and in the interest of safety for members of our campus community, the university has issued a mandatory campus evacuation," the school said in a statement on its website. The school, a private, historically black university in Daytona Beach, has about 2,750 undergraduate students.
The school told its students that their smartphones are “computers” and that they should continue to use their cellphones to keep up with their studies in the event they do not have access to a tablet, laptop or desktop technology.
Florida's west coast could take rare hurricane hit
AccuWeather meteorologists are warning that the storm could slam the west coast of Florida – an often-missed target. The U.S. database shows that about 160 hurricanes, excluding tropical storms, have affected Florida. Only 17 have made landfall on the west coast north of the Florida Keys.
Most storms typically travel northeast or northwest, not up the coast, AccuWeather senior weather editor Jesse Ferrell said. There is no record of a hurricane ever having tracked entirely up the west coast of Florida since records began in 1944. But Ian appears likely to take a "very unusual track," he said.
Florida has had recent storms that were hurricanes, but were downgraded to tropical storms before landfall, Ferrell said. Elsa in 2021 made landfall west of Tampa, and Eta in 2020 made landfall north of Tampa in Cedar Key. Neither had the firepower close to a Category 3 storm, however.
DeSantis declares statewide state of emergency
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a pre-landfall state of emergency for all 67 counties late Saturday. The declaration came a day after DeSantis' 24-county declaration.Florida National Guard members will be activated and on standby.
"Floridians should remain vigilant and ensure their households are prepared for a potential impact," DeSantis said.
Ian will then either move inland somewhere over the southeast U.S., or could track near or along parts of the Eastern Seaboard late this week, The Weather Channel said, adding that it's too soon to tell where Ian will end up, but there could be wind, flooding rain and other impacts extending into other parts of the East late next week.
Biden authorizes FEMA to help
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency for the state, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide assistance to protect lives and property.
Biden postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida due to the storm.
Caymans, Cuba to see Ian's fury first
But Ian will do damage even before reaching Cuba. Hurricane conditions are expected to reach Grand Cayman by early Monday, with tropical storm conditions expected by Sunday night, the weather service said.
Significant wind and storm surges in western Cuba are expected as the storm strengthens Sunday night, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane conditions are possible within the hurricane watch area in Cuba by Monday night or early Tuesday, with tropical storm conditions possible by late Monday. Tropical storm conditions are possible within the tropical storm watch area in Cuba Monday night and Tuesday.
Contributing: Rick Neale, Florida Today; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ian could become 'major' hurricane, targets Florida. What we know