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    Monday, November 28, 2022

    Storm strengthens to 'extremely dangerous' Category 4 as it nears Florida

    Hurricane Ian has strengthened into an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of almost 140 miles per hour, the National Hurricane Center said early Wednesday.

    Ahead of a landfall expected by Wednesday afternoon, the center warned of "life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flooding in the Florida peninsula." The first significant hurricane to hit the Sunshine State since 2018, Ian is forecast to move slowly toward the coast and cause power outages. Its effects are expected to be felt into the weekend.

    In Cuba, government crews worked through the night to restore power after Ian severely disrupted the national electric system, leaving the entire island nation without power as of Tuesday evening.

    Ian is bringing hurricane-force winds to a wide swath of Florida's west coast and tropical storm conditions to nearly the entire length of the state. Although landfall is expected somewhere between Tampa Bay and Cape Coral, damaging winds, dangerous waves and flooding rain will be widespread.

    A Category 4 storm can be strong enough to severely damage well-built homes. The storm was within some 75 miles of Naples, Fla., as of 5 a.m. Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

    Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said at least two tornadoes have struck Florida as the National Weather Service warned of more tornadoes into Wednesday. He urged at-risk residents to evacuate on Tuesday night. "You're going to start feeling major impacts of this storm relatively soon," he said.

    DeSantis urged residents facing "catastrophic flooding or life-threatening storm surge" to evacuate to higher ground, shelters or lodging facilities found on Expedia and Airbnb. "You need to evacuate now," he said at a news conference Tuesday night. "You're going to start feeling major impacts of this storm relatively soon."

    Ian will move from southwest Florida to central parts of the state before exiting to the Atlantic. Bridges may close on Wednesday, when landfall is expected, he added. "This is a lot of nasty weather that we're in store for," DeSantis said.

    Florida officials have mobilized thousands of National Guard troops, utility workers and rescuers while preparing to shepherd thousands of residents and their pets to temporary facilities.

    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."

    Floridians streamed out of low-lying coastal communities, stocked up on sandbags and supplies, and boarded over windows Tuesday as Ian barreled toward the state with what DeSantis called "historic storm surge and flood potential."

    Although officials in Tampa expressed relief that the Category 3 hurricane forecast's path had moved South, possibly reducing the risk of catastrophic flooding in the uniquely ill-prepared city, surrounding Hillsborough County and other jurisdictions along the Gulf Coast expanded evacuation orders that already covered more than 2 million Florida residents. DeSantis warned that severe impacts were still expected in the Tampa Bay region and urged those who had already left to stay away.

    "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.

    Dozens of emergency shelters began to welcome evacuees and their pets. Airports were closed. Urban search-and-rescue teams, high-water vehicles and law-enforcement aviation units were prepositioned around the state. Five thousand Florida National Guard troops, as well as 2,000 additional troops from other states, were activated, officials said.

    Some residents who decided to wait out the storm were rushing to make last-minute preparations, stocking up on supplies and hurricane-proofing their homes. Others, meanwhile, were racing to escape Ian's path.

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