Hurricane Ian blasts into southwest Florida with ‘catastrophic’ winds and surge
MIAMI — Hurricane Ian made landfall as a Category 4 storm in Cayo Costa, an island off the coast of Fort Myers, at 3 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, then came ashore just south of Punta Gorda an hour later.
The National Hurricane Center said the massive Category 4 storm made landfall on the barrier island with 150 mph maximum sustained winds that weakened to 145 mph winds by the time it made landfall on the mainland, just south of Punta Gorda near Pirate Harbor.
The storm was already “causing catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding” in southwest Florida early Wednesday afternoon, the beginning of what promised to be a damaging path across the peninsula. The most immediate and life-threatening concern was storm surge — the waters of the Gulf of Mexico pushed inland by Ian.
Numerous videos posted on the internet showed torrents of seawater rapidly filling streets in Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach. Naples also reported a record 6 feet of surge. Earlier, sections of Key West were flooding.
The surge predictions from the National Hurricane Center soared overnight to 12 to 18 feet for Englewood to Bonita Bay, a forecast so high a new color was added to the National Hurricane Center’s peak storm surge prediction map. The worst of that storm surge is expected after landfall and later Wednesday evening.
Ian was also raking much of Florida with hurricane and tropical storm force winds and will be dropping flooding rains estimated at up to 2 feet as it slowly crosses the state Wednesday and through Thursday.
South Florida saw tornadoes overnight that flipped small airplanes and took down big trees, and Key West recorded one of its highest ever storm surge levels overnight, followed by a record high on Wednesday in Naples.
More than 750,000 people lost power by Wednesday afternoon, and utility officials said they might have to rebuild parts of the grid after the damage.
Gov. Ron DeSantis urged those that chose not to evacuate to fill out a form on the state’s website so first responders can find them. The governor asked the federal government for extra airlift hoists and high water vehicles to help with the massive recovery effort expected.
Ken Graham, director of the National Weather Service, called Hurricane Ian a “historic event.”
“This is going to be a storm we talk about for many years to come,” he said.
Hurricanes Ian’s winds continued to weaken as it came ashore Wednesday afternoon, with maximum sustained winds dropping to 140 mph by 5 p.m. from a peak of 155 mph.
As of a 5 p.m. NHC update, Ian was about 5 miles east of Punta Gorda and about 120 miles south-southwest of Orlando. The storm was moving north-northeast near 8 mph. The Category 4 storm’s hurricane-force winds extend up to 50 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend up to 175 miles.
As the eyewall moved ashore on Captiva and Sanibel islands, live traffic web cameras showed storm surge overwhelming streets, rising higher than mailboxes and stop signs before the cameras cut out. Naples was experiencing 6 feet of storm surge and rising, blowing away the previous record of just over 4 feet.
The hurricane center declared the storm made landfall around 3 p.m. near Cayo Costa, an island just north of Captiva and off the coast of Fort Myers with few full-time residents and reachable only by boat.
A second landfall on the mainland, near Pirate Harbor, happened around 4:35 p.m.
Bill Karins, a meteorologist with NBC’s climate unit, tweeted that the worst storm surge was likely to occur after landfall, when the highest winds come ashore.
Ian’s hurricane-force winds were expected to reach much of Florida’s Gulf Coast Wednesday morning, which has a hurricane warning in effect from Chokoloskee to the Anclote River, including the Tampa Bay region.
The storm is expected to move over Central Florida Wednesday night and Thursday morning and emerge over the western Atlantic by late Thursday as a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds around 65 mph.
Hurricane Ian approached the state with 155 mph winds, 2 mph shy of Category 5 status, before weakening to 150 mph by landfall.
Nine storms have reached Category 5 status while at sea but only four have made landfall at that strength in the U.S. — three of them in Florida. The most recent was Michael, which hammered the Panhandle in 2018. Andrew devastated South Miami-Dade in 1992 and an unnamed storm now known as the Labor Day hurricane swept the Florida Keys in 1935. Camille roared into the Mississippi coastline in 1969. All four of those Category 5 hurricanes were tropical storms three days before landfall.
Storm surge totals jumped up overnight and again Wednesday morning. The middle of Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor, is forecast to see the most storm surge, with 12 to 18 feet possible.
Bonita Beach south to Chokoloskee could see 8 to 12 feet of storm surge.
“No one alive has seen 12 feet of storm surge in that area, and many areas could take years to recover. Please be safe!” tweeted Eric Blake, a senior meteorologist for NHC.
Ian, which already devastated Cuba Tuesday as a Category 3 hurricane, is a large and powerful storm with a wind field extending out almost 200 miles from the center.
That’s why all of Florida’s east coast, including South Florida, which has already been feeling some of Ian’s effects, particularly in the Keys, is under a tropical storm warning. The Dry Tortugas is under a hurricane warning.
Ian will also be a rainmaker. The hurricane center predicts up to 12 inches in South Florida and up to 24 inches for central and northeast Florida.
“Heavy rainfall will spread across the Florida peninsula through Thursday and reach portions of the Southeast later this week and this weekend. Catastrophic flooding is expected across portions of central Florida with considerable flooding in southern Florida, northern Florida, southeastern Georgia and coastal South Carolina,” the hurricane center said. “Widespread, prolonged moderate to major river flooding expected across central Florida.”
Key West broke a storm surge record overnight with more than 2 feet of storm surge, the third-highest water level on record behind 2005’s Wilma and 2017’s Irma, tweeted Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and former Hurricane Hunter.
The Key West office of the National Weather Service said the Keys saw 3 to 5 feet of storm surge on the Atlantic side of the island chain late Tuesday and a similar surge is expected Wednesday for the Gulf side.
As of the 5 p.m. update, storm watches and warning for the Keys were lifted, a sign that the worst of the winds and storm surge were over.
For Southwest Florida, 2004’s Hurricane Charley is the yardstick for the worst storm they’ve lived through. The Category 4 storm came through like a small buzz saw, crossing the state and exiting near New Smyrna Beach.
Charley killed 30 Floridians and caused more than $5 billion of damage. Power was out for weeks in some spots, and public schools were closed for two weeks in some central Florida counties.
Now another strong storm is closing in on the same region, but meteorologists and emergency managers are warning residents that it’s not the same storm, despite the eerily similar track. Ian will be slower, bigger and wetter than Charley, and the population of the region has grown dramatically, putting more people in the bull's-eye.
“This is not Hurricane Charlie, but something you have never experienced,” tweeted Craig Fugate, who led the state’s emergency management response to Charley in 2004. “SW Florida, you are running out of time, if you are still in an evacuation zone, move inland.”
Wednesday morning, Hurricane Ian’s eye was around 17 miles wide, already much larger than Charley’s tight 7-mile wide eye was when it made landfall in Punta Gorda.
Ian’s wind field was also far larger, with hurricane-force winds extending 50 miles from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extending up to 175 miles. Charley’s wind field was far smaller, with tropical storm winds extending out around 70 miles from the center.
“As of 5am Wednesday, Ian’s area of hurricane-force winds is 2.9 times larger, and its area of tropical storm force winds is 2.3 times larger,” tweeted Brian McNoldy, a senior research associate at the University of Miami.
Charley also rushed through the state as an unusually fast storm, with speeds of 20 to 25 mph. Hurricane Ian is forecast to be much slower, with speeds from 10 mph to 5 mph. That slowdown will allow it to dump incredible amounts of rain across most of the state and push “catastrophic” levels of storm surge ashore.
Charley brought 5 to 8 inches of rain to the state, while Ian could bring up to 24 across most of central Florida.
A final factor that could make Hurricane Ian far more devastating than Charley is the number of people and buildings at risk.
Population in the counties closest to landfall has grown by more than half a million since 2004, tweeted Matt Lanza, a meteorologist for Space City Weather in Houston.
President Joe Biden warned Florida residents not to ignore local orders to evacuate. “The danger is real,” he said.
”We’ll be there to help you clean up and rebuild, to help Florida get moving again,” Biden said. “We’ll be there every step of the way. That’s my absolute commitment to the people of Florida.”
FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, speaking from the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said Wednesday that the federal government has gone to great lengths to prepare for Ian’s arrival.
FEMA has readied 128,000 gallons of fuel for rapid deployment, she said, and the Army Corps of Engineers has pre-positioned 350 personnel to help restore power to areas of the state as soon as the storm passes.
The FEMA chief also said 3.7 million meals and 3.5 million liters of water have been placed in Alabama, ready to be sent to the state when needed. The agency has also sent Florida 300 extra ambulances ahead of time.
Search and rescue teams from a variety of government entities, including FEMA, Department of Defense and the state of Florida, have also been stationed in Miami.
“I can confidently say that we have the right teams and we have the right resources in place and ready to meet the changes or the needs of those that we are charged to serve,” Criswell said.
Guthrie, the state’s emergency management director, said the state was staging shallow draft vehicles to prepare for search and rescue missions for people stranded by flooding.
At a Tuesday evening briefing of the state’s emergency operations staff, Guthrie added another warning: They should be prepared to work long hours for the next few weeks as they manage search and rescue operations.
“It’s going to be a humanitarian, heavy-duty lift,’‘ he told them. “People are going to lose a lot of the contents of their homes, but their homes are still going to be standing — and that’s just crushing. How many of these individuals do not have flood insurance?”
“So, therefore, their homeowners’ insurance is probably not going to cover it. Right. So this is gonna take a lot of special people to get out there and do that. And you guys are a lot of special people.”
(McClatchy staff writers Michael Wilner and Alex Roarty and Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.)