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    Wednesday, December 07, 2022

    'Eyewall' moves onshore in southwest Florida, as cautions expand beyond state

    The ring of destructive winds around Hurricane Ian's calm center, known as the eyewall, is moving onshore at Sanibel and Captiva Islands in southwest Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center's noon advisory revealed the eye of Ian just 45 miles southwest of Punta Gorda, Fla., and 50 miles west-northwest of Naples, while churning north-northeast - toward the coastline - at 9 mph. Towering, violent thunderstorms crackling with lightning surrounded the eye.

    Damaging winds have commenced along the coast, with a weather station at Sanibel Island clocking a 98-mph gust in the past hour. They are expected to increase further, with gusts over 115 mph probable in areas affected by the eyewall.

    An extreme wind warning is in effect for central Lee County in southwest Florida, where Ian is coming ashore.The first significant hurricane to hit the Sunshine State since 2018, Ian's effects are expected to be felt into the weekend.

    It is "on the threshold" of Category 5 status, the most severe hurricane classification, with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph at its intense core.

    The storm is expected to maintain its strength long enough after landfall that the National Hurricane Center has issued hurricane warnings even on Florida's Atlantic coast, from near Vero Beach to Flagler Beach, an area that includes NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. The storm was about 45 miles west-northwest of Naples at 11 a.m. as its eyewall began to move ashore.

    Hurricane watches are in effect along the Atlantic coast from northern Florida through Georgia and into South Carolina, indicating the possibility of hurricane-force winds in those areas in the coming day or two.

    But first, the hurricane center is warning of "catastrophic" storm surge flooding and wind damage on Florida's Gulf Coast as well as "widespread, life-threatening catastrophic flooding" across parts of central Florida.

    Hundreds of thousands of people in southwestern Florida are without power Wednesday as conditions deteriorate ahead of Hurricane Ian's landfall.

    An estimated 200,907 customers were experiencing power outages as of noon, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages across the country. In the hard-hit Florida peninsula, Collier County alone, which includes Naples, had more than 67,000 residents without power.

    President Biden said that he spoke with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Tuesday as the state prepares for extensive damage expected from the nearly Category 5 hurricane heading there later Wednesday.

    "Yesterday, I spoke with Governor DeSantis for some time," Biden said Wednesday at an unrelated event at the White House. "My team has been in constant contact with him from the very beginning."

    "This is going to be a nasty, nasty day" and more will follow, DeSantis told a news conference early Wednesday, as the massive storm caused widespread power outages.

    Some bridges were already closed, more than 200 shelters were open and around 40,000 power outages were reported, DeSantis said, urging residents to avoid damaged power lines and trees. He said the state had activated 5,000 Florida Guard members as well as 2,000 more from neighboring states and "massive assets" to respond to what he described as "a very powerful, major hurricane."

    The hurricane's greater-than-expected force as it closes in on Florida's Gulf Coast prompted meteorologists to revise upward their forecasts for storm surge - a rise in ocean water that storms push onto normally dry land, causing destructive flooding. The National Hurricane Center now predicts as much as 12 to 18 feet of flooding for a zone of the coastline from Port Charlotte to Naples, including the Fort Myers and Cape Coral regions.

    Storm surge forecasting models suggest widespread inundation of 9 feet or more of water across large swaths of coastal Cape Coral, Port Charlotte and Naples. In low-lying Cape Coral, which is surrounded by the waters of Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee River, surges of 3 to 6 feet could push several miles inland.

    South of Naples, the Hurricane Center predicts as much as 8 to 12 feet of storm surge from Naples into the Everglades, 6 to 10 feet north of Port Charlotte to Longboat Key, and 4 to 6 feet around Tampa Bay.

    Storm surge is a product of the sheer amount of moisture a storm like Ian carries, the force of its winds pushing ocean water inland, and extremely low air pressure at the center of the storm literally allowing a bulge of high water beneath it. It can move like a wall knocking down whatever is in its path.

    Several tornadoes formed in the greater Miami-Fort Lauderdale area Tuesday evening and overnight, including one that prompted a rare "particularly dangerous situation" tornado warning for Davie, Plantation and Sunrise.

    A scattering of tornadoes, many of which will be erratic and quick-hitting, are predicted to accompany Ian's landfall in Florida. Ian's overall wind field will bring a change of wind speed and/or direction with height, making an environment ripe for rotating rain squalls and tornadoes.

    Only four hurricanes have ever been known to make landfall in the continental United States with maximum winds of 155 miles per hour or above, according to Philip Klotzbach, a meteorologist at Colorado State University who specializes in hurricane forecasts. Of those, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was the strongest, with maximum sustained winds of 185 miles per hour, he wrote on Twitter.

    In an advisory, the National Hurricane Center said that if the storm surge from Ian coincides with high tide in western Florida, water levels could reach as high as 16 feet above ground in some areas. "Catastrophic is an appropriate word to describe how bad the storm surge inundation is going to be in southwest Florida," Klotzbach said.

    In Cuba, which was struck Tuesday, government crews worked through the night to restore power after Ian severely disrupted the national electric system, with only a few areas of power restored by early Wednesday. At least two people died in the massive storm, which crossed western Cuba on Tuesday en route to Florida, with buildings suffering major damage after landfall in the western province of Pinar del Rio.

    Disney, Universal Studios and Sea World are closing their Florida resorts and theme parks because of Ian.

    Disney is shuttering facilities in and around the Orlando area on Wednesday and Thursday, including the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Multiday ticket holders affected by the closures will be given extensions through Friday.

    Disney told visitors it would not accept check-ins at its resort hotels on Thursday. It urged guests to check in by 3 p.m. Wednesday and asked those with reservations that begin Friday to arrive "no earlier than 3 p.m."

    "We are looking at really, really major storm surge up and down the west coast of Florida," DeSantis said.

    Local leaders cautioned that even an indirect hit from the hurricane could devastate waterside communities, and authorities said impacts were expected across the width of the peninsula. Power outages could linger for days, while "disruptions in fuel supplies" are possible, the governor said.

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    The Washington Post's Reis Thebault, Karin Brulliard and Lori Rozsa contributed to this report.

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