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Hurricane Ian brings powerful storm surge to Gulf Coast, South Florida hit by strong rain and tornadoes

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Carline Jean
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
King Point residents leave with their belongings after an apparent overnight tornado spawned from Hurricane Ian at Kings Point 55+ community in Delray Beach, Fla., on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022.

Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday in southwest Florida as one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S., swamping streets with water and smashing trees along the coast while moving at a crawl that threatened catastrophic flooding across a wide area.

Barely an hour after the massive storm trudged ashore, a coastal sheriff’s office reported that it was already getting a significant number of calls from people trapped in homes. The hurricane’s center struck near Cayo Costa, a protected barrier island just west of heavily populated Fort Myers.

In South Florida, Ian’s approach spawned several tornadoes Tuesday night, including one that tore into a retirement community in Delray Beach and another in Pembroke Pines. Key West experienced tropical storm conditions overnight, with widespread flooding, power outages and even a fire. The city reported one of its highest ever storm surges overnight, although the area is no longer under tropical storm or surge watches or warnings.

Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties remain under a tropical storm warning. The area is being battered by rain and strong wind, but there has not been any widespread reports of flooding despite the king tides on the southeastern part of the state. Up to 63,000 people are without power in the area, with 1 million people statewide reporting outages.

Public schools will remain closed across South Florida on Thursday. Miami Dade College, the University of Miami, and Florida International University will resume normal operations, including in-person classes. Still, some higher ed institutions aren’t quite ready to reopen their campuses, as the region is expected to continue experiencing tropical storm force winds into Thursday. The College of the Florida Keys, Broward College, Palm Beach State College and Florida Atlantic University will remain closed on Thursday.

Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Palm Beach County airports remain open, though delays and cancellations are expected. Key West International Airport is expected to open at 7 a.m. on Thursday.

In southwest Florida, Mark Pritchett stepped outside his Venice home around the time the hurricane came ashore about 35 miles to the south. He called it “terrifying.”

“I literally couldn’t stand against the wind,” Pritchett wrote in a text message. “Rain shooting like needles. My street is a river. Limbs and trees down. And the worst is yet to come.”

The Category 4 storm slammed the coast with 150 mph winds and pushed a wall of storm surge accumulated during its slow march over the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1 million Florida homes and businesses were without electricity. The storm previously tore into Cuba, killing two people and bringing down the country’s electrical grid.

About 2.5 million people were ordered to evacuate southwest Florida before Ian hit, but by law no one could be forced to flee. Though expected to weaken to a tropical storm as it marched inland at about 9 mph, Ian’s hurricane force winds were likely to be felt well into central Florida.

“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said, stressing that people in Ian’s path along the coast should rush to the safest possible shelter and stay there.

Jackson Boone left his home near the coast and hunkered down at his law office in Venice with employees and their pets. Boone at one point opened a door to howling wind and rain flying sideways.

“We’re seeing tree damage, horizontal rain, very high wind — I think it’s a 100-plus sustained outside right now,” Boone said by telephone. “We have a 50-plus-year-old oak tree that has toppled over.”

In Naples, the first floor of a fire station was inundated with about 3 feet of water and firefighters worked to salvage gear from a firetruck stuck outside the garage in even deeper water, a video posted by the Naples Fire Department showed. Naples is in Collier County, where the sheriff’s department reported on Facebook that it was getting “a significant number of calls of people trapped by water in their homes” and that it would prioritize reaching people “reporting life threatening medical emergencies in deep water.”

Ian’s windspeed at landfall tied it for the fifth-strongest hurricane to strike the U.S., along with several other storms. Among them was Hurricane Charley, which hit almost the same spot on Florida’s coast in August 2004, killing 10 people and inflicting $14 billion in damage.

Ian had strengthened rapidly overnight, prompting Fort Myers handyman Tom Hawver to abandon his plan to weather the hurricane at home and head across the state to Fort Lauderdale.

“We were going to stay and then just decided when we got up, and they said 155 mph winds,” Hawver said. “We don’t have a generator. I just don’t see the advantage of sitting there in the dark, in a hot house, watching water come in your house.”

Florida residents rushed ahead of the impact to board up heir homes, stash precious belongings on upper floors and join long lines of cars leaving the shore.

Some decided to try and ride out the storm. Jared Lewis, a Tampa delivery driver, said his home has withstood hurricanes in the past, though not as powerful as Ian.

“It is kind of scary, makes you a bit anxious,” Lewis said. “After the last year of not having any, now you go to a Category 4 or 5. We are more used to the 2s and 3s.”

Ian made landfall more than 100 miles south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, sparing the densely populated Tampa Bay area from its first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921. Officials warned residents that Tampa could still experience powerful winds and up to 20 inches of rain.

“Please, please, please be aware that we are not out of danger yet,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a video on Twitter. “Flooding is still going to occur.”

Flash floods were possible across all of Florida. Hazards include the polluted leftovers of Florida’s phosphate fertilizer mining industry, more than 1 billion tons of slightly radioactive wastecontained in enormous ponds that could overflow in heavy rains.

The federal government sent 300 ambulances with medical teams and was ready to truck in 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million liters of water once the storm passes.

“We’ll be there to help you clean up and rebuild, to help Florida get moving again,” President Joe Biden said Wednesday. “And we’ll be there every step of the way. That’s my absolute commitment to the people of the state of Florida.”

The governors of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina all preemptively declared states of emergency. Forecasters predicted Ian will turn toward those states as a tropical storm, likely dumping more flooding rains into the weekend, after crossing Florida.