Hurricane Ian continued to batter Florida after it made landfall as an extremely dangerous Category 4 storm Wednesday, bringing "catastrophic" storm surge, winds and flooding as one of the strongest recorded storms to ever hit the state.
With maximum sustained winds at 150 mph, just 7 mph short of a Category 5 hurricane, Ian made landfall around 3:05 p.m. in Cayo Costa, near a portion of the state's heavily populated Gulf Coast near Fort Myers, the National Hurricane Center in Miami said.
The storm was about 70 miles south of Orlando and was moving north-northeast at a speed of 8 mph, moving inland with winds decreasing to 90 mph, according to the latest update from the NHC.
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Hundreds of thousands of Floridians had been given mandatory evacuation orders in anticipation of powerful storm surge, high winds and flooding rains from Ian. More than 1.1 million power outages were reported throughout the state, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said.
Forecasters had said the area where Ian made landfall could be inundated by a storm surge of up to 18 feet.
"A storm of this magnitude will produce catastrophic flooding and life-threatening storm surge on the Gulf Coast of Florida," DeSantis said during a Wednesday news conference. "This is a major, major storm."
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Off the coast on Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, swirling water-covered residential streets and was halfway up mailbox posts by mid-morning. Seawater rushed out of Tampa Bay, leaving parts of the muddy bottom exposed, and waves crashed over the end of a wooden pier at Naples.
Many rushed to board up their homes and move precious belonging up to higher floors before fleeing.
“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens seeking a hotel in the tourist district of Orlando. “We live in a high risk zone, so we thought it best to evacuate.”
Ian had already made landfall as a Category 3 storm Tuesday in Cuba just southwest of the town of La Coloma in the Pinar Del Rio province, bringing down the electricity grid and leaving the entire island without power.
Ian’s slowed over the Gulf, enabling the hurricane to grow wider and stronger. Winds exceeding tropical-storm strength of 39 mph had already reached Florida by 3 a.m. Wednesday and hurricane-force winds were in Florida well in advance of the storm's eyewall moving inland, the Miami-based NHC center said.
DeSantis said more power outages were expected, and he urged people to prepare for extended outages. He said Florida will receive assistance from several states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia and New York.
The National Hurricane Center's hurricane warning was in effect for Chokoloskee to Anclote River, including Tampa Bay, and the Sebastian Inlet to the Flagler/Volusia County line. A hurricane watch was in effect for the Flagler/Volusia County Line to the South Santee River.
A tropical storm warning was in effect for Indian Pass to the Anclote River, all of the Florida Keys, Flamingo to South Santee River, Flamingo to Sebastian Inlet, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay.
Pictures: ‘Catastrophic' Hurricane Ian Makes Landfall in Florida
A storm surge warning was in effect for the Lower Florida Keys from Big Pine Key westward to Key West, Suwannee River southward to Flamingo, Tampa Bay, the Flagler/Volusia Line to the mouth of the St. Mary's River, and the St. Johns River.
More than 2.5 million people were under mandatory evacuation orders, in Hillsborough, Lee and other counties.
Lee County - where Fort Myers is on Florida’s southwest Gulf Coast - had issued mandatory evacuations early Tuesday for low-lying areas including Fort Myers Beach, Sanibel and Bonita Beach, where about 250,000 people live, after forecasters expanded the hurricane warning area.
“If you are in any of those counties it is no longer possible to safely evacuate. It’s time to hunker down and prepare for the storm," DeSantis said Wednesday. “Do what you need to do to stay safe. If you are where that storm is approaching, you’re already in hazardous conditions. It’s going to get a lot worse very quickly. So please hunker down."
DeSantis activated the state's National Guard ahead of the storm's expected impact this week. The governor's declaration frees up emergency protective funding to address potential damage from storm surge, flooding, dangerous winds and other weather conditions throughout the state.
DeSantis expanded the declaration of a state of emergency Saturday to include the entire state.
Tampa International Airport suspended all operations Tuesday afternoon due to the hurricane. Travelers were advised to contact their airline for information. American Airlines, meanwhile, reduced fares for flights out of 20 airports in the region that may be impacted by the storm. The airline was also waving fees for checked baggage and carry-on pets to help those in the area to evacuate.
Florida Power & Light was preparing more than 13,000 workers to assist with their response to Hurricane Ian, company officials said. The power company said they were pre-positioning workers and supplies to respond to any outages from the hurricane.
Although South Florida won't take a direct hit from Hurricane Ian, severe weather and flooding were expected throughout the area over the next couple days.
In Broward, volatile storms passing through Tuesday night spawned a tornado that flipped small planes and a second unconfirmed tornado that ripped through a neighborhood uprooting trees.
A flood watch was issued for most of South Florida and remained in effect until Wednesday night.
The City of Miami opened its Emergency Operations Center at 9 a.m. Tuesday to deal with expected flooding from Ian.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez reassured residents that all permanent water pumps are working, and seven additional portable pumps will be installed, as needed.
Schools in Miami-Dade and Broward were announcing closures this week due to Ian. All schools and offices in the Monroe County School District were closed Tuesday and would remain closed Wednesday due to the impacts of Hurricane Ian.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced Monday night that the football team was relocating football operations to the Miami area in preparation for next weekend’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Florida Gators and UCF Knights moved their games to Sunday while the USF Bulls will now play their game Saturday in Boca Raton.