Hurricane Ian hit Cuba on Tuesday, leaving the island nation without power, and is now targeting the Florida peninsula as a major storm with sustained winds of over 120 miles per hour.
The hurricane, slowly heading north, is expected to make landfall Wednesday and could strike just south of Tampa, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The path of the storm has left Florida residents with tough decisions about whether to stay or flee, and for Catherine and Ellie Bergerson, who are linked to NBC 5 political reporter Mary Ann Ahern, the decision was taken to come to Chicago.
“We live two and a half miles from the water,” Catherine said. “So, as the saying goes: you prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
The Bergersons fled Naples and traveled to Miami to catch a flight to Chicago. The hurricane could potentially bring storm surges of up to 12 feet to some coastal areas, and more than a foot of rain could fall in the hardest hit areas.
Even areas far from the storm, including Miami, could be buffeted by tropical storm-force winds and heavy rain, leaving residents to seek inland areas.
“It’s really a relief that we’ve gone further inland and away from water and flooding, but you also don’t know why you’re coming home,” said Ellie Bergerson-Knupp.
Teri Jacobs was one of the last people to leave Sarasota before the storm hit.
“I’m very happy to be home,” she said.
The Velazquez family also left Orlando before the storm arrived. There, theme parks including SeaWorld and Disney World have made the decision to close.
“We were like the last ones out,” Melvin Velazquez said.
“Schools are already closed in Orlando, and you see them in grocery stores getting water and all the necessities,” Jenny Velazquez added.
Life-threatening storm surges are expected along Florida’s west coast, with the worst of the storm expected to hit between Naples and Sarasota, according to the National Hurricane Center. If the storm makes landfall in the southern part of this area, it could make it as a Category 3 hurricane, but wind shear could reduce its ferocity a bit if it drifts north, NWS officials said.
Hurricane-force winds are expected to hit starting Wednesday morning, with tropical storm conditions expected to arrive before dawn.
Heavy rain is likely to continue through Thursday, causing “catastrophic flooding” in central Florida. Some places may see 15 inches or more of rain.
Severe flooding is expected in the rest of the peninsula.
Later in the week, the storm will affect Georgia and other parts of the Southeast this weekend. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has already declared a state of emergency ahead of the hurricane, which is expected to hit his state on Friday.