Tropical Storm Ian continues to grow in approach to Cuba; warning issued for lower Keys as Florida braces for hurricane

Tropical Storm Ian continued to intensify as it approached Cuba late Sunday while a tropical storm watch went into effect for the lower Keys

But most of Florida continued to brace for the uncertain path of Ian.

The tri-county South Florida region still remains out of the current tracks for a direct hit from the storm, which is expected to be a major hurricane when it enters the Gulf of Mexico, and all Floridians should prepare for a major storm, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday.

The tropical storm warning from Seven Mile Bridge to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas, was included in the 11 p.m. update by the National Hurricane Center. A tropical storm warning means that tropical storm conditions are possible within 36 hours.

At the 11 p.m. update, the storm’s maximum sustained wind strength increased to 65 mph, still shy of the 74 mph to be classified a hurricane.

On the forecast track, the center of Ian is expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands on Monday, and near or over western Cuba Monday night and early Tuesday. Ian will then emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

According to the National Weather Service/Miami, the storm is expected to intensify rapidly to hurricane strength on Monday as it moves into the Gulf and through mid-week as it approaches Florida.

In addition to the tropical storm warning going up for the lower Keys at 11 p.m., a storm surge watch has been issued for the Keys from the Card Sound Bridge westward to Key West, including the Dry Tortugas, and for the west coast of Florida from Englewood southward to the Card Sound Bridge, including Florida Bay. A tropical storm watch has been issued for the west coast of Florida from Englewood southward to Chokoloskee.

The weather service continues to emphasize uncertainty in the storm’s path once it enters the Gulf, and said the storm is expected to expand in size as well. The models show a possible direct hit to the Tampa area all the way through the Florida Panhandle.

Small changes in the path will make a big difference in the impact throughout Florida. In South Florida, widespread rain could lead to major flooding, accompanied by winds gusting up to tropical storm levels.

“Don’t get too wedded to those cones,” DeSantis said in a news conference Sunday at the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “Even if you’re not necessarily right in the eye of the path of the storm, there’s going to be pretty broad impacts throughout the state.”

He said there could be heavy flooding on Florida’s east coast. And there’s no guarantee that the storm’s path will continue to move west as it has for the past two days.

“There’s uncertainty. The models are not in agreement,” he said. “Just don’t think if you’re not in that eye, you don’t have to make preparations. The last thing we want to have it bear east quickly and then have folks who are not prepared. It’s better to be prepared and not have to use those preparations than the opposite.”

This includes having an adequate supply of food, water, batteries, medicine and fuel, he said.

Most residents won’t need to evacuate, emergency officials said. People should first look on to see if they are in an evacuation zone. If not, they should assess whether their home can withstand tropical storm- or hurricane-strength winds.

“In Hurricane Irma, we over evacuated residents by nearly 2 million people,” said Kevin Guthrie, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

DeSantis said to expect heavy rains, strong winds, flash flooding, storm surges and even isolated tornadoes. He has issued a state of emergency for all 67 counties “given the uncertainty of the storm.” Previously, the state of emergency had been issued only for 24 counties, including Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach.

President Biden has also approved a federal emergency declaration for Florida, allowing it to access the resources of FEMA.

The state has waved restrictions for commercial trucks and authorized emergency refills of prescriptions or 30 days. DeSantis said he’s also activated 2,500 members of the Florida National Guard to assist with the emergency.

The center of Ian is expected to pass well southwest of Jamaica Sunday evening, and pass near or west of the Cayman Islands early Monday, according to an 8 p.m. forecast track. Ian will then move near or over western Cuba Monday night and early Tuesday and emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

If Ian does make landfall on Cuba, it is expected to do so as a major hurricane (sustained winds of at least 111 mph).

It will then and emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday.

The 8 p.m. advisory said a hurricane warning is in effect for Grand Cayman and the Cuban provinces of Isla de Juventud, Pinar del Rio and Artemisa. Hurricane warnings, signaling hurricane conditions are expected, are typically issued 36 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds.

South Florida is out of the cone of uncertainty forecasts where the center of a hurricane will be two-thirds of the time, said Shawn Bhatti, a meteorologist with the National Hurricane Center. But subtle shifts in the track can make a huge difference, and the warm waters of the Gulf and possible land interaction with Cuba could create those shifts.

“This weekend, have all preparations in place for a potential worst-case scenario,” said Bhatti.

On Sunday, the forecast track appeared to start shifting again to the east.

The “reasonable” worst-case scenario right now still includes all the impacts associated with a major hurricane. But if the storm keeps shifting west, South Florida could see only high waves and gusty winds.

The hurricane’s path will become increasingly clear. By Sunday night into Monday morning, forecasters say they’ll have a much better idea of what’s to come and whether South Florida might be spared the brunt of the storm.

Meanwhile, the storm previously known as Hermine continued to bring rain to the Canary Islands on Sunday then became a remnant low and dissipated.

What was Hurricane Fiona had weakened to a post-tropical cyclone by early Sunday and dissipated later in the day.

Forecasters are also monitoring a broad area of low pressure in the Atlantic that has a 30% chance of developing in the next five days, though Ian is the biggest concern.

Fiona was the first major hurricane of the 2022 season, meaning Category 3 and above.

Tropical Storm Gaston is continuing to weaken and was expected to become a post-tropical cyclone late Sunday.

Hurricane season ends Nov. 30. The next named storm after Ian would be Julia.

Staff writer Shira Moolten contributed to this report.