DeSantis lifts some tolls, including Alligator Alley, as Hurricane Ian approaches

Miami Herald file photo

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said he suspended tolls for Tampa Bay and warned Floridians to prepare for major storm surge and flooding as Hurricane Ian churns toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Ian could become a Category 4 storm as it enters the Gulf, and even eastern parts of Florida should brace for impacts, he said.

“This is a really, really big hurricane at this point,” he said. “The storm surge is likely to be significant given how big the storm is.”

DeSantis encouraged Floridians to “remain calm” and not “panic buy” gasoline and other supplies.

“There’s no need to panic buy,” DeSantis said. “If you don’t normally drink a lot of water, you may not need to go out and buy 20 gallons of water right now.

“Just do what you need to be prepared.”

Tropical Storm Ian strengthened into a hurricane overnight as it moved north toward Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. The storm is expected to become a major hurricane, with wind speeds greater than 110 mph.

Late Monday morning, Hurricane Ian was packing maximum sustained winds of 80 mph as it moved north-northwest about 380 miles south of Key West.

Much of Florida and the entire Tampa Bay area remained in the forecast cone, and a hurricane watch was issued for the Tampa Bay area early Monday morning. The area could start experiencing tropical storm-force winds as soon as Tuesday evening, according to the National Hurricane Center.

On Saturday, DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the entire state.

Already, Pinellas County officials are advising residents who live in mobile homes or low-lying areas, or who are planning to leave the county ahead of Hurricane Ian, to do so today. The county could see 10 to 15 inches of rain and life-threatening storm surge, officials warned.

To help clear roadways, DeSantis said he was suspending tolls in the Tampa Bay area, Polk County, parts of the Panhandle and Alligator Alley. Other toll suspensions could come depending on the storm’s path, he said.

The storm is currently projected to make landfall in Levy County, DeSantis said, but he said they won’t be confident in the storm’s path until it passes over Cuba.

He encouraged Floridians to follow their local emergency officials’ recommendations and expect power outages.

“Even if the eye of the storm doesn’t hit your region, you’re going to have really significant winds,” DeSantis said. “It’s going to knock over trees and cause interruption.”