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 (225 km/h) over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida.
As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba were evacuating 50,000 people in Pinar del Rio province, sent in medical and emergency personnel, and took steps to protect food and other crops in warehouses, according to state media.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” U.S. National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press.
The hurricane center predicted areas of Cuba’s western coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 meters) of storm surge Monday night or early Tuesday.
In Havana, fishermen were taking their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon, the seaside boardwalk, and city workers were unclogging storm drains ahead of the expected rain.
Havana resident Adyz Ladron, 35, said the potential for rising water from the storm worries him.
“I am very scared because my house gets completely flooded, with water up to here,” he said, pointing to his chest, according to Associated Press.
In Havana’s El Fanguito, a poor neighborhood near the Almendares River, residents were packing up what they could to leave their homes, many of which show damage from previous storms.
“I hope we escape this one because it would be the end of us. We already have so little,” health worker Abel Rodrigues, 54, said.
On Monday night, Ian was moving northwest at 13 mph (20 km/h), about 105 miles (169 kilometers) southeast of the western tip of Cuba, with top sustained winds increasing to 105 mph (169 km/h).
The center of the hurricane passed to the west of the Cayman Islands, but no major damage was reported there Monday, and residents were going back into the streets as the winds died down.
“We seem to have dodged the bullet” Grand Cayman resident Gary Hollins said. “I am a happy camper.”
Ian won’t linger over Cuba but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said, Associated Press reported.