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Hurricane Ian

Officials are urging some Florida residents to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Ian Citing what could be a *deadly* storm surge.

The American Red Cross of Greater Pennsylvania has sent volunteers to Florida to help with the hurricane response.

Hurricane Ian rapidly intensified overnight and sat just shy of a Category 5 storm Wednesday morning along Florida’s southwest coast. Winds were topping out at 155 mph, just 2 mph shy of the most dangerous Category 5 status. Some gusts were tracked at 190 mph.

The massive system was expected to make landfall in the Fort Myers area, sparing Tampa from a rare direct hit from a hurricane. The bay area, which forecasters said could be completely inundated, is popular with retirees and tourists.

The heavily populated area of Naples all the way to the Sarasota region faced the highest risk of devastating storm surges. The hurricane center warned water levels could rise as much as 12 to 16 feet above ground level for coastal areas straddling Punta Gorda and Fort Myers, which are between Naples and Sarasota.

Hurricane hunters with the U.S. Air Force confirmed Ian gained a significant amount of strength as it passed over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Before its U.S. arrival, Ian battered Cuba, knocking out the country’s entire electrical grid in one fell swoop and leaving the whole island in the dark. At 7 a.m., Ian was centered about 65 miles west-southwest of Naples, churning toward the coast at 10 mph.

Overnight, Hurricane Ian went through a natural cycle when it lost its old eye and formed a new one. The timing of this is bad for the Florida coast. The storm has gotten stronger and larger just hours before it’s set to make landfall. Ian went from 120 mph to 155 mph in just three hours, the second round of rapid intensification in the storm’s life cycle. Ian’s forward movement slowed over the Gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger, and its predicted path shifted slightly southward. That would likely spare Tampa and St. Petersburg their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

“This is going to be a nasty nasty day, two days,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said early Wednesday at a news conference.

Ian is expected to weaken to tropical storm status and likely pass just to the southeast of the Gainesville area Thursday night. Because of this path, a tropical storm watch is in effect for Alachua, Columbia, Gilchrist and Bradford Counties. A tropical storm warning remains in effect for Dixie and Levy County.

It’s possible for parts of Florida to see feet of rain in the I-4 corridor.

“It’s time to hunker down and prepare for the storm,” DeSantis said. “Do what you need to do to stay safe. If you are where that storm is approaching, you’re already in hazardous conditions. It’s going to get a lot worse very quickly. So please hunker down.”

More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, but by law, no one can be forced to leave. The governor said the state has 30,000 linemen, urban search and rescue teams and 7,000 National Guard troops from Florida and elsewhere ready to help once the weather clears.

Feeder bands near the West Palm Beach area could spawn tornados. Damage reported Tuesday evening included flipped cars and debris landing in the streets.

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