Residents of Florida's Gulf Coast on Tuesday boarded up their homes, packed up their vehicles and headed for higher ground as Hurricane Ian drew near, threatening to bring a deadly storm surge and more than a foot of rain to some areas.
Before heading to Florida, Hurricane Ian slammed into Cuba, forcing evacuations, cutting power to hundreds of thousands of people and swamping fishing villages.
Some 2.5 million Floridians were under evacuation orders or warnings with the sprawling storm on track to make landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Wednesday evening somewhere along the Gulf Coast. A Category 3 storm features maximum sustained winds of up to 129 miles per hour (208 km per hour).
The area south of Tampa near Sarasota was the most likely place for the eye to come ashore, the National Hurricane Center said on Tuesday afternoon, while stressing that it was too early to be sure. That region - home to miles of sandy beaches and scores of resort hotels - is a favorite with retirees and vacationers alike.
"I know I should be scared of this one, but I'm too busy to be scared. I just know we have to go," said John O'Leary, a jazz pianist from Tampa, said as he and his wife loaded food, water and family photos into their car before heading to his mother's house in Palm Harbor, 25 miles (40 km) to the west.
O'Leary, 36, was one of the thousands of motorists to hit the road as they fled low-lying areas in hopes to avoid potentially life-threatening storm surge that, according to forecasters, could reach 12 feet (3.7 meters) in the Sarasota area.
"There's still uncertainty with where that exact landfall will be, but just understand, the impacts are going to be far, far broader than just where the eye of the storm happens to make landfall," Governor Ron DeSantis said.
Melissa Wolcott Martino, a retired magazine editor, also heeded the warnings as she hurried to pack her vehicle with her valuables, two cats and a rabbit early Tuesday morning ahead of the hurricane.
"I wasn't particularly scared until I saw the storm track this morning," Martino, 78, said as she prepared to go to her son's house north of Tampa. "It looks like the eye will come right over our house. Now I'm scared, so we're leaving."
If Ian strikes Tampa, it would be the first hurricane to make landfall in the area since the Tarpon Springs storm in 1921.
Despite the warnings and orders, some residents refused to evacuate. "I'm staying put," said Vanessa Vazquez, 50, a software engineer in St. Petersburg. "I have four cats and I don't want to stress them out. And we have a strong house."
It also may prove to be one of the costliest as the latest simulations show the estimated cost from storm damage and other impacts ranging from $38 billion to more than $60 billion depending on the exact track and intensity, Enki Research said on its blog on Tuesday.
CLOSINGS, POWER OUTAGES
Three dozen school districts were either closed Tuesday or planned to be closed by Wednesday, according to the Florida Department of Education. Many of the schools are also used as shelters during the storm and its aftermath.
The St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport - located on a vulnerable peninsula east of Tampa Bay ceased operations at 1 p.m. on Tuesday and the Tampa International Airport will shut down at 5 p.m. The Orlando International Airport has no plans to close but officials say they are monitoring the storm.
Tampa Electric warned customers to be prepared for "extended outages." The company will institute a "targeted interruption" of service to a part of downtown Tampa on the western edge of the city. That area has already been evacuated.
Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, opened 45 evacuation shelters, where more than 600 people and their pets have checked in so, Emergency Management Director Tim Dudley said.
Disney World closed several attractions ahead of the storm while the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers relocated to Miami, where they will practice this week ahead of their game against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
(This story has been refiled to correct a typo in 'threatening' in the first paragraph)
(Reporting by Shannon Stapleton in Tampa and Brendan O'Brien in Washington; Additional reporting by Maria Alejandra Cardona in Tampa, Tyler Clifford in Washington and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)