Tropical storm Ian has strengthened into a hurricane set to unleash significant winds, flash floods and mudslides in Florida, Cuba and Jamaica, weather experts have warned.
The weather system is about 90 miles (150km) southwest of the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean Sea, according to the latest advisory issued by the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) on Monday.
Authorities in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, about two hours southwest of capital Havana, are preparing to evacuate people before the storm is expected to hit the western part of the island en route to Florida.
A hurricane warning is in place in Grand Cayman, the largest of the Cayman Islands, together with Pinar del Rio and other Cuban provinces including Isla de Juventud and Artemisa.
The NHC tweeted on Monday morning: “Life-threatening storm surge and hurricane-force winds are expected in portions of western Cuba beginning late today, and Ian is forecast to be at major hurricane strength when it is near western Cuba.
“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion.”
Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency amid mounting concerns over the impact of the hurricane, with residents urged to monitor the storm’s evolving path and prepare for heavy rainfall, high winds and rising tides, leading to widespread disruption including power outages.
Weather models predict the hurricane will travel in the direction of Florida’s west coast or Panhandle region – but forecasters are currently unsure where it will make landfall.
Governor DeSantis told a news conference on Sunday: “We’re going to keep monitoring the track of this storm.
“But it really is important to stress the degree of uncertainty that still exists,” he warned.
“Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts through the state.”
US President Joe Biden has also declared an emergency, as authorities begin co-ordinating disaster relief and providing assistance to protect lives and property.
Mr Biden also delayed a planned trip to Florida on Tuesday due to the storm.
Senior hurricane specialist at the NHC, John Cangialosi, urged people to begin gathering supplies – amid reports of a rush on water and generators.
“It’s a hard thing to say stay tuned, but that’s the right message right now,” he said.
“But for those in Florida, it’s still time to prepare.
“I’m not telling you to put up your shutters yet or do anything like that, but it’s still time to get your supplies.”
The approaching storm also delayed another planned attempt on Tuesday to launch NASA’s Artemis moon mission from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
Dr Reinhard Schiemann, associate professor at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, warned of the impact climate change could have on tropical cyclones including Ian.
“Although the total number of tropical cyclones may not change much, or could even decrease, we expect to see increased peak wind speeds so that the fraction of category 4 and 5 cyclones – the worst and potentially most destructive – will increase.
“It is likely that the average rate of rainfall in tropical cyclones will also increase, because warmer air can hold more water and because at higher wind speeds the rate of moisture supply to a rainy area increases.
“We also expect that the most intense phase of tropical cyclones will tend to occur at higher latitudes than we have seen in the past.”
In Canada, Storm Fiona washed away homes and knocked out electricity in two provinces after transforming from a post-tropical storm into a hurricane on Saturday.
Meanwhile in Italy at least 10 people died after “water-bomb” flash floods, likened to a tsunami, swept into Italy’s central region of Marche earlier this month.
Record-breaking rains in Pakistan triggering unprecedented floods affected 33 million and claimed the lives of hundreds of people including children, disaster officials said.