Hurricane Ian grows stronger as it nears landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Hurricane Ian is bulking up again and bearing down on Florida’s west coast. It could bring 130 mph winds, 18 inches of rain and a 12-foot storm surge. Acting National Director of the National Hurricane Center Jamie Rhome joined Judy Woodruff to talk about the storm's projected path and the risks ahead.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hurricane Ian is bulking up again and bearing down on Florida's West Coast. The storm lost some punch over Western Cuba today, and then began regaining strength. It could bring 130 mile-an-hour winds, 18 inches of rain, and a 12-foot ocean surge to Florida later tomorrow.

    William Brangham begins our coverage.

  • William Brangham:

    Along Florida's Gulf Coast today, they're preparing for the worst, bracing for what forecasters say could be a potentially historic catastrophe.

  • Daniel Montilla, Clearwater Resident (through translator):

    We're at least 100 meters from the beach. We're trying to take precautions for damages, but they're unavoidable, especially when a hurricane unleashes the force that it does.

  • William Brangham:

    Across the state, shelves were emptied of water and needed supplies, while long lines grew to fill sandbags for a last line of defense.

    Those who aren't hunkering down took to the roads. Today, more than 2.5 million Floridians are under some kind of evacuation order.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL):

    It's going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in.

  • William Brangham:

    From Sarasota, Governor Ron DeSantis said it was not too late to act.

  • Gov. Ron DeSantis:

    And you don't need to evacuate to another state. You don't need to evacuate hundreds of miles away. The key is, is to get to high ground and be in a safe structure.

  • William Brangham:

    And, at the White House, President Biden urged Americans to follow official guidance.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: The citizens in the potential impact area should obey the instructions of local officials. Evacuate when ordered and be prepared for the storm when it comes.

  • William Brangham:

    Earlier today, Ian ripped through Western Cuba with fierce rain and strong winds, striking the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Rio. It's forced tens of thousands to evacuate and cut power to over a million more.

    Others chose to stay put and ride out the heavy conditions.

  • Juan Miguel Bautista, Security Guard (through translator):

    Yes, I am worried, but work is work, and I am a security guard, so I need to go to work, whether there's lightning, thunder or rain.

  • William Brangham:

    After passing Cuba, Ian is expected to intensify into a larger, more powerful storm as it feeds on the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

    Because of global climate change, sea levels are higher, and in some places warmer, both of which can add additional fuel to storms. Forecasters warn, the coast from Fort Myers to the Tampa Bay region are most at risk of life-threatening storm surge.

    Tampa, which is home to more than three million people, is particularly exposed. Much of it sits on low-lying ground, and has seen rapid development along the coast in recent years, a combination which makes it one of the most storm-vulnerable cities on earth. Tonight, with their homes boarded, many residents can do little but wait and hope.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The approach of Ian prompted rescheduling of various sporting events, and the January 6 Committee in Congress cited the storm as it canceled tomorrow's planned hearing in Washington.

    Now, for the latest on the hurricane's projected path and the risks ahead, I'm joined by Jamie Rhome. He's the acting director of the National Hurricane Center.

    Jamie Rhome, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    So, tell us right now, what is the location, the latest information you have on the location of this storm, and its trajectory as you see it?

  • Jamie Rhome, National Hurricane Center:

    Yes.

  • As of 5:

    00, Ian is located about 238 miles south of Sarasota. So it's really starting to close in on Florida. Movement is off to the north at 10 miles per hour, but it's going to start to slow down as it approaches and moves over the state. It is a Category 3 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson scale. That's maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.

    And, unfortunately, it's looking like a multihazard event is going to unfold as this relatively large hurricane sweeps across the Florida Peninsula. We're going to have heavy rains and flooding inland, really significant and potentially life-threatening storm surge down around the southwestern coast of Florida.

    So, this is south of Tampa down around Fort Myers, Port Charlotte area, a band of heavy rain developing along the I-4 Corridor. And then not to be left out is the damaging wind, as the core of the hurricane moves inland and across the state.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, when you say multihazard catastrophe, what does that mean for the people who live in Florida? Who should be thinking about evacuating, how far inland, and who should just basically be hunkering down?

  • Jamie Rhome:

    It's actually a very good question. Thank you for asking it.

    We evacuate in this country because of storm surge. So, if you're in a storm surge evacuation zone or hurricane evacuation zone, and you have been ordered to evacuate, then you must do so. If you're not in a hurricane evacuation zone, then you should probably stay put, unless you're not in a well-built home.

    So if you're in a mobile home or R.V. or something like, that's different. But if you're in a well-built home, and you're not within the evacuation order, you should probably hunker down and stay put.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so is that message getting out to the people who need to hear it.

  • Jamie Rhome:

    I actually think so.

    The lead time on this particular system was really historic. I have been here for 23 years, and I was really just struck by the fact that we were able to predict a major hurricane days in advance developing over the Northwest Caribbean and then moving into the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

    I can remember a time when that forecast would not have been possible. So I really think that people have been hearing the message and taking action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And when we just heard in that report from my colleague William Brangham about the Tampa area being particularly vulnerable, what is it about that part of Florida that makes it so vulnerable?

  • Jamie Rhome:

    It's actually the entire West Coast of Florida.

    Every everyone likes to focus on Tampa, but it's the entire West Coast of Florida. And owing to how this system is going to come inland, we think the peak surge is going to be somewhere down here, maybe closer to the Fort Myers area vs. Tampa. But Tampa is going to get the heavy rain shield, so the heavy precipitation and flooding from heavy rains.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we are going to be watching it very closely. And I know you certainly are too.

    Jamie Rhome, we thank you very much.

  • Jamie Rhome:

    Thank you.

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