Floridians head for shelters as Hurricane Ian barrels toward Tampa

TAMPA, Fla. — More than 2 million people in Florida were under orders to pack up and head east to safer ground Tuesday as Hurricane Ian barreled north from Cuba on a path toward Tampa.

Before city officials ordered mandatory evacuations of the Tampa neighborhoods closest to the water, Steve McClure, 54, had stocked up on food, batteries and flashlights and made plans to bunk with his parents in a nearby county.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry, especially with the track of the hurricane consistently changing,” said McClure, a three-year Tampa resident who was living in nearby Clearwater when Hurricane Elena battered Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1985. “First it was coming right at us a day ago. Now it’s turning a bit to the east.”

Packing maximum sustained winds of up to 120 mph, Ian was expected to make landfall south of Tampa, Florida’s third-largest city, sometime Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center warned.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said the time to seek shelter is now.

“You don’t get a mulligan when your personal safety is at risk,” he said at a briefing. “And so we know this thing is going to be hitting the state directly sometime tomorrow evening.”

Even if Tampa avoids a direct hit, water from the Gulf of Mexico will be pushed up Tampa Bay, leading to potentially widespread flooding, state officials warned.

Heavy traffic moves slowly on I-4 East as residents evacuate the Gulf Coast of Florida in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022, in Four Corners, Fla. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
Heavy traffic moves slowly on I-4 East as residents evacuate the Gulf Coast of Florida in advance of the arrival of Hurricane Ian on Sept. 27, 2022, in Four Corners, Fla. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

McClure said he’s not sticking around to find out how bad it could get.

“We live basically on the water of Tampa Bay, and we’re in a mandatory evacuation zone, so we’re getting out of here,” he said. “With the storm surge, we figured it was probably safest just to go.”

And he’s under no illusions his home will be spared.

“One hundred percent, especially with the storm surge, because you never know how high it’s going to come up,” he said. “The water could come into our house.”

Alexander Burks, who lives along the Hillsborough River not far from downtown Tampa in a mandatory evacuation zone, was also planning to evacuate Tuesday.

"The storm surge is our biggest worry, but also the high winds and rain," Burks, 50, said as he boarded up the windows of his home and built a wall of sandbags to protect his property.

But Burks, who moved to Tampa in 2005 and has weathered several hurricanes since then, said he's not going far. He said he plans to ride out the storm at his second house across town.

Many schools in Tampa were filling up quickly with residents seeking shelter. Nonetheless, there appeared to be little panic, even as the skies started to turn gray. People congregated in the courtyards, chatting and catching up on the latest developments.

Jose Collado, who doesn't live in a neighborhood under a mandatory evacuation order, went anyway to Middleton High School, which is north and east of downtown Tampa. He said he intends to stay there until the storm passes.

“People keep saying nothing is going to happen, but you never know,” he said. “I need to stay here.”

Jerry Manns, 40, also opted to ride out the storm at the school. “I’m not going to be here long, no longer than I have to,” he said.

But Manns said that as a survivor of Hurricane Irma, which devastated a large part of southwestern Florida back in 2017, he takes storms like these seriously.

“I was in the eye of it,” Manns said of Irma. “Thank God I had the chance to live and tell the story.”

Gini Roberts, who lives in an evacuation zone in south Tampa, grabbed her dog, Harry, and some necessities and fled about 40 miles inland to Lakeland, in Polk County, where they checked into a hotel they had stayed in during previous hurricanes.

“It is what it is," Roberts told NBC affiliate WFLA of Tampa. “I’d rather be alive, and I hope my house is there when I get back. I hope my house isn’t flooded."

Many Floridians in more rural areas like Polk County live in trailers that are especially vulnerable to high winds. And as the day wore on, the gym at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland filled with families who fled the mobile home parks.

“It’s not safe," Jamie Rodriguez of Lakeland told WFLA. "I have family."

Kevin Guthrie, the director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, said 2.5 million people were under some kind of evacuation order. He advised people who live along the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida to evacuate east across the state.

“Many people in the southwest Florida area, your best bet is going to be to evacuate across the state,” Guthrie said at a news conference. “Just go straight across the state to Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach.”

And "do not go north," because that's where Hurricane Ian is going, he said.

"Go straight across over to southeast Florida," he said.

Three bridges span Old Tampa Bay, two of which connect Tampa to St. Petersburg and the third of which links to northern Pinellas County. They are likely to remain open through the storm.

However, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which spans lower Tampa Bay and connects St. Petersburg to Manatee County, will be shut down if winds speeds eclipse 40 mph, the state Transportation Department warned.

Deon J. Hampton reported from Tampa and Corky Siemaszko from New York.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com