Luca Leguerchois (L) and Eglantine Leguerchois board up their Paradise Sweets store in preparation for Hurricane Ian on September 26, 2022 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Image Credit: AFP

Tampa: A strengthening Hurricane Ian's rain and winds lashed Cuba's western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people, as it became a major Category 3 storm early Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida's west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

The storm made landfall early Tuesday in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba's main tobacco-growing region. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the island's west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge.

"Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,'' hurricane center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.

After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 225 km/h.

As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

"Please treat this storm seriously. It's the real deal. This is not a drill," Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said Monday at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.

Residents across Florida scrambled to place sandbags around their homes and stockpile emergency supplies on Monday, emptying store shelves as Hurricane Ian spun toward the state carrying high winds, torrential rains and a powerful storm surge.

Ian’s path toward Florida forced the US space agency Nasa to roll its giant Artemis 1 moon rocket off its Cape Canaveral lauchpad after postponing the much-anticipated mission a third time.

Ian was a Category 2 hurricane as of Monday evening, packing winds over 160 km per hour and expected to intensify before making landfall in Cuba. Forecasters said that once Ian left Cuba, the storm could make landfall north of Tampa Bay early on Friday or turn northwest toward Florida’s Panhandle.

“This is a really big storm,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference, saying the storm could potentially envelope both coasts of the state.

The Biden administration declared a public health emergency for Florida on Monday and said it was working with local officials to provide support.

Florida has seen wetter, windier and more intense hurricanes in recent years, which experts attribute to climate change.

There is also evidence that climate change is causing storms to travel more slowly, meaning they can dump more water in one place.

Phil Roberts loads sandbags into his truck in preparation for Hurricane Ian in Largo, Fla., on Sept. 26, 2022. Image Credit: For The Washington Post

Signs of the impending storm were seen throughout Florida, a state of 21 million people. In Titusville, a city of 43,000 on the Atlantic Coast, crews used chainsaws to trim palm trees.

In a grocery store in St. Petersburg, across the state on the Gulf Coast, only empty cardboard boxes remained where the store normally stocks distilled water. Toilet paper, snacks and canned soup could still be found.

In the historic Tampa neighbourhood of Ybor City, northeast of downtown, Diane Zambito, 64, said she normally doesn’t get rattled by hurricanes that hit the state.

“But this one’s different,” she said on Monday afternoon as her husband nailed plywood over their home’s windows. “This one scares me. It’s too big to not be scared if you have any sense.” The couple planned to shovel sand into bags and stack them up in front of the doors to keep water from flowing inside.

National Guard mobilised

The Zambitos were among many Florida residents preparing for flooding that could submerge streets and homes. Hurricane-force could damage or destroy homes and businesses and trigger power outages in the coming days, forecasters warn.

The governor has mobilised 5,000 National Guard members. An additional 2,000 are coming from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina and nearby states have troops on standby.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said her island city could be one of the first places in the United States hit by Hurricane Ian.

Johnston said homeowners and vacation rentals had nailed up storm shutters or boards across windows as residents stocked up enough food and water to last a week.

The city cut down the coconuts from trees lining some streets, she said, explaining: “A coconut can become a 30-pound projectile in a storm.” City vehicles were moved to higher ground and residents living on boats were told to seek shelter on land before storm squalls start lashing the city on Monday night. Forecasters predicted a 4-foot (1.2-meter) storm surge that could push seawater up over the shore into the streets.

“If there’s an evacuation, I will be the one to order it,” Johnston said. “We’ll consider it if the storm wobbles east.” The intensifying storm was about 160km southwest of Grand Cayman on Monday morning with sustained winds of 128km per hour.

BP Plc halted oil production at two platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ian could intensify into a Category 3 storm once it enters the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters say, but weaken again while parked off Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast on Thursday. From there, the storm’s path is uncertain.

Regardless, between 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30cm) of rain were expected to inundate both Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts on Thursday, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Centre in College Park, Maryland.

Ian follows Hurricane Fiona, a powerful Category 4 storm that carved a path of destruction last week through Puerto Rico, leaving most of the US territory without power and potable water. Fiona then barrelled through the Turks and Caicos Islands, skirted Bermuda and slammed into Canada’s Atlantic coast, where critical infrastructure might take months to repair.