Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday warned residents to take all necessary precautions against as what is expected to be the storm of the century, Hurricane Ian, approaches the Coast of Florida.
The governor's update came as St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport said its terminal will close at 1 p.m. Tuesday due to mandatory evacuation orders from Pinellas County and "remain closed until the evacuation order is lifted."
Flights were resuming Monday and Tuesday morning as scheduled.
Tampa International Airport, meanwhile, said it was suspending operations on Tuesday starting at 5 p.m.
"The 5 p.m. closure will allow the Airport to prepare the airfield and terminals, including the securing of jet bridges, ground equipment, and any remaining aircraft," the airport said in a statement. "The Airport, including the Main Terminal, Airsides, and parking garages will be closed to all visitors at that time."
It added: "Damage assessments will begin as soon as it is safe to do so. TPA will closely coordinate the reopening of the airport with its partners based on roadway safety, facility readiness, and staffing."
It's been over a century since a major storm like Hurricane Ian has struck the Tampa Bay area, which blossomed from a few hundred thousand people in 1921 to more than 3 million today. Many of these people live in low-lying neighborhoods that are highly susceptible to storm surges and flooding they have rarely before experienced, which some experts say could be worsened by the effects of climate change.
Speaking at the state Emergency Operations Center, DeSantis said that "Floridians up and down the Gulf Coast should feel the impacts of (Hurricane Ian)."
"It will bring heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surge, along with isolate tornado activity along Florida’s Gulf Coast," he said. "Floridians up and down the Gulf should feel the impacts of this as up to 36 hours before actual landfall due to the size of the hurricane. This is a really big hurricane at this point."
DeSantis gave a second press conference later Monday morning in Pinellas County, advising residents to know their evacuation zone.
"(Officials) aren’t going to say the entire county goes, they’re going to say certain zones, or areas that are likely more vulnerable to the effects of the storm," DeSantis said.
Floridians can find which zone they’re in by visiting floridadisaster.org/planprepare.
A mandatory evacuation order for Evacuation Zone A was issued for Pinellas County on Monday. A voluntary order for Evacuation Zone B and Zone C will be ordered for Tuesday, FOX 13 reported.
Several Tampa Bay area hospitals were evacuated Monday while others in the region canceled noncritical surgeries and appointments in anticipation of the hurricane, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Five helicopters transported around 40 patients from HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital, including people on stretchers, according to the paper.
The Florida Department of Transportation has suspended tolls at Polk Parkway, Suncoast Parkway, Veterans Expressway, I-4 Connector and Hillsborough, Selmon Expressway, Pinellas Byway, Sunshine Skyway Bridge, and Garson Point Bridge, among others.
Hillsborough County closed its schools on Monday. Pasco, Pinellas, Hernando, Sarasota, Polk, and Charlotte county schools, among others, were expected to be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Updated information about school closures can be found at fldoe.org/storminfo.
Uber said it was offering a discount of up to $30 for travel to and from state-approved storm shelters in the Tampa Bay region. A list of approved storm shelters in Florida can be found here.
U-Hail, meanwhile, said it was offering 30 days of free self-storage and U-Box container usage at 43 Florida facilities to residents who stand to be impacted by Hurricane Ian.
The Florida National Guard has activated 5,000 guardsmen, with 2,000 additional guardsmen from neighboring states prepared to help, the governor said. Five urban search and rescue teams have also been activated and are ready to help the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"There may not be direct impacts in all 67 counties, but there may be indirect impacts not just from the storm, but also from people that may be evacuating to other parts of the states," DeSantis said. "And we want to make sure that our communities have the maximum flexibility that they need to be able to respond to the storm in any way that they need to."
Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Director Chris Stalling said the state was preparing for Florida evacuees. And Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp told WABE that officials were concerned that Hurricane Ian could slow down and produce flooding rains in that state.
MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa said it had issued an installation-wide mandatory evacuation to be completed by the afternoon of Tuesday for "non-mission essential individuals, including uniformed service members/dependents."
By Monday afternoon, Hurricane Ian was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday.
Ian was forecast to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 mph over the Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida.
As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane in more than 100 years.
A surge of up to 10 feet of ocean water and 10 inches of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches in isolated areas. That's enough water to inundate coastal communities.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.
Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Tuesday trip to Florida because of the storm.
Flash flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian's center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
Zones to be evacuated include all along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it. St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have survival plans in place and monitor updates of the storm's evolving path.
By 5 p.m. maximum sustained winds were up to 100 mph, pushing it to a Category 2 hurricane, as the storm shifted north northwestern, the National Hurricane Center said in an update.
A hurricane warning was in effect for much of the Tampa Bay area and the western tip of Cuba. A "warning" is different from a watch, meaning that conditions are expected within 36 hours. Portions of the storm surge watch area were also upgraded to a storm warning.