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Tropical Storm Ian strengthens as Tampa Bay ramps up preparations

The region remains in the potential path of a major hurricane. Tropical storm-force winds could arrive as early as Tuesday.
Friends Felicia Livengood, 29 and Victoria Colson, 31, fill sandbags along with hundreds of other Tampa residents that waited for over 2 hours at the Himes Avenue Complex on Sunday.
Friends Felicia Livengood, 29 and Victoria Colson, 31, fill sandbags along with hundreds of other Tampa residents that waited for over 2 hours at the Himes Avenue Complex on Sunday. [ LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 25|Updated Sep. 26

TAMPA — From the residents scooping up pallets of water and foraging for sandbags, to the local and state officials issuing measured pleas for preparedness, there was one word on everyone’s lips on Sunday. Three letters, two syllables: Ian.

Related: MONDAY UPDATE: Ian becomes hurricane, Tampa Bay still in its sights

The ninth named storm of the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season, Tropical Storm Ian gained strength Sunday as it churned through the northwest Caribbean and aimed at western Cuba before making an expected turn northward — putting it on a track for Florida as a major hurricane.

The National Hurricane Center forecast turned east Sunday night, leaving Tampa Bay firmly in the path of a potential catastrophic hurricane by midweek.

The storm was about 140 miles south of Grand Cayman and 390 miles southeast of the western tip of Cuba, according to the center’s advisory at 11 p.m. Sunday. Ian was moving northwest with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph.

A tropical storm warning was issued for the lower Florida Keys, along with a storm surge watch from Englewood on the state’s west coast to the Card Sound Bridge in South Florida, then all the way down to Key West. A tropical storm watch was in effect from Englewood to Chokoloskee, which was struck hard in 2017 by Hurricane Irma.

A hurricane warning was also in effect for Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa.

The National Hurricane Center's 11 a.m. advisory on Sunday showed the Tampa Bay region could see tropical-storm-force winds on Tuesday.
The National Hurricane Center's 11 a.m. advisory on Sunday showed the Tampa Bay region could see tropical-storm-force winds on Tuesday. [ National Hurricane Center ]

“Heavy rainfall may affect north Florida, the Florida Panhandle and portions of the southeast on Thursday, Friday and Saturday,” the center said in its 11 p.m. advisory.

The center of Ian is expected to pass Jamaica, then move near or past the Cayman Islands early Monday morning.

Much of the Florida panhandle and state’s peninsula, including the Tampa Bay area, remained in the hurricane’s possible path as of forecasters’ 11 p.m. advisory. Tampa Bay was newly situated in the National Hurricane Center’s 3-day cone, however, with the storm predicted to near the region by Wednesday night.

Its landfall location, strength and exact timing remained uncertain.

Pinellas County urged residents to finish their sheltering plans soon, whether they be in a nonevacuation zone home, in a hotel or with a friend or family member.

Pinellas schools announced they will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

A day after declaring a state of emergency for all of Florida’s 67 counties, Gov. Ron DeSantis stressed the continued precariousness of the storm’s path during a Sunday news conference.

“Just don’t think if you’re not in that eye, that somehow you don’t have to make preparations,” he said, warning of possible fuel disruptions, power failures and evacuation orders. “The impacts will be broad throughout the state of Florida.”

He authorized emergency 30-day refills of prescriptions and activated 2,500 Florida National Guardsmen.

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency for the state, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts. The president postponed a trip scheduled Tuesday to Orlando.

The National Hurricane Center warned the long-term forecast remains largely unpredictable as the storm enters the Gulf of Mexico.

“Regardless of Ian’s exact track and intensity, there is a risk of dangerous storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of next week,” the hurricane center advised Sunday morning.

“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” it added.

Hillsborough leaders — including local mayors, law enforcement and emergency management staff — gathered Sunday afternoon to echo a message of preparation.

County administrator Bonnie Wise said Hillsborough can open several dozen shelters if needed, and that staff have been out cleaning ditches to improve drainage and water flow.

“The safest way through bad weather is together,” Wise said, adding that officials have been identifying which shelters can care for people with special needs and those who require around-the-clock electricity for medical needs.

“We are prepared here in the city of Tampa,” Mayor Jane Castor said Sunday. “We are working on every single level. But we need you, the citizens.”

Many residents heeded such instructions, with long lines stretching from sandbag distribution sites and grocery stores teaming with shoppers gathering water bottles and nonperishable foods.

In Tampa’s McFarlane Park, 6-year-old Conor, propelled by his mother’s promise of a doughnut, was among two dozen volunteers shoveling sand into bags Sunday morning for a line of cars curling around the block.

By midday, he was fading and began making his own mound of sand, as though it were a beach day and not a hurricane-preparedness mission.

“I’m taking a break,” he told his mom, Stephanie Billingham.

“You’ve been taking a break for 35 minutes,” she joked back as she shoveled.

Meanwhile, at the Walmart Supercenter at 1505 N. Dale Mabry, hundreds of cases of water were gone within minutes as customers prepared for the storm. Workers said Sunday has been the most hectic day of shopping since Tropical Storm Ian formed late Friday over the central Caribbean Sea.

The storm preparation didn’t feel real for Kevin Ensor, at least not yet. This could be the 22-year-old’s first hurricane. Ensor moved to Tampa in June after graduating from the University of Kentucky.

He picked up two cases — among the last two cases the store had.

Times staff writers Matt Cohen and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report.

• • •

2022 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

IT'S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

RISING THREAT: Tampa Bay will flood. Here's how to get ready.

DOUBLE-CHECK: Checklists for building all kinds of hurricane kits

PHONE IT IN: Use your smartphone to protect your data, documents and photos.

SELF-CARE: Protect your mental health during a hurricane.

• • •

Rising Threat: A special report on flood risk and climate change

PART 1: The Tampa Bay Times partnered with the National Hurricane Center for a revealing look at future storms.

PART 2: Even weak hurricanes can cause huge storm surges. Experts say people don't understand the risk.

PART 3: Tampa Bay has huge flood risk. What should we do about it?

INTERACTIVE MAP: Search your Tampa Bay neighborhood to see the hurricane flood risk.

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