Category 4 Hurricane Ian hits Florida, bringing historic storm surge

Dangerous conditions will continue as the storm moves north.
A satellite image of Hurricane Ian making landfall on the southwest coast of Florida on Wednesday, September 28. NOAA/NASA

All eyes are set on Florida as Hurricane Ian, a historic Category 4 storm, wrecks havoc on the state’s Gulf Coast. The storm officially made landfall at 3:05 p.m EST on Wednesday near barrier island Cayo Casto with winds maximum sustained winds of 150 mph, only seven miles per hour below a Category 5 definition. Ian is one of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the United States.

About 2 million customers in Florida were without power as of this morning, according to PowerOutage.us.

Massive storm surges, the rise in ocean water above typically dry land, hit Fort Meyers hours before the storm’s official landfall. Water rushed into parking garages and power lines burst into flames south of the eyewall in nearby Naples. The storm surge likely peaked as high as 12 feet in some areas of the state according to government officials. In Fort Meyers, the surge increased to over seven feet, four feet higher than the previous storm surge record and making it the largest in the city’s 50 years of storm observations. In Naples, the tide gauge also posted its highest level on record, with a surge of at least seven feet.

Roughly 2.5 million people are under evacuation. Tampa International Orlando International Airport closed ahead of the storm and Jacksonville International Airport cancelled all of today’s flights.

[Related: Forecasters warn Floridians to prepare for rapidly intensifying Hurricane Ian.]

On Tuesday, the storm made landfall in western Cuba, as a powerful Category 3 storm with winds up to 125 miles per hour. Into Wednesday, the storm dumped several inches of rain. Two deaths have been reported across Cuba. At one point, the power was out for the entire island, but Cuban authorities began the slow process of restoring power on Wednesday.

The rainfall triggered mudslides and flash flooding in the western part of the Caribbean island, where thousands of residents evacuated. Images from Cuban media outlet Cubadebate show the Pinar del Rio province with raging floodwaters and uprooted trees. The province is known for growing Cuba’s rich tobacco, and the owners of the Robaina tobacco farm posted photos on social media showing greenhouses and roofs destroyed. “It was apocalyptic. A real disaster,” farm owner Hirochi Robaina wrote on Facebook.

[Related: What hurricane categories mean and why we use them.]

Ian has since been downgraded to a tropical storm is anticipated to head north and east towards Georgia and the Carolinas later today. According to the National Hurricane Center, it may come ashore near Charleston, South Carolina as a strong tropical storm with 60 mph winds and huge amounts of rain. Tropical storm warnings and storm surge watches are in place, as well as some hurricane watches. There is the possibility that Ian could be close to hurricane strength when it comes ashore again.

Ian is the fifth named storm of the 2022 Atlantic Hurricane Season which officially ends on November 30th. In May, NOAA forecasted an above-normal hurricane season, because of continuing La Niña weather pattern and higher than normal Atlantic Ocean temperatures due to climate change. The hurricane was able to gain strength over abnormally warm water in the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming has increased average ocean temperatures around the world, with some parts of the Gulf seeing record high temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit this summer. Hurricanes need waters about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to strengthen, so this abnormally warm water is creating more hurricane fuel.

Research also shows that hurricanes are also moving more slowly, which gives them more time to cause more damage, especially in the form of flooding.

According to Colorado State University researcher Philip Klotzbach, only four hurricanes on record have made landfall in the US with maximum sustained winds of greater than 155 mph, while a total of 14 Category 4 or 5 hurricanes have made landfall in Florida since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping records in 1851. Hurricane Charley was referenced by government officials as an example of how hurricane tracks can change to prepare for Ian. The Category 4 storm hit in 2014 and was originally forecasted to hit the Tampa Bay area directly, but shifted closer to the southwest.

The strongest and most powerful hurricane to hit southern Florida was Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The storm struck southern Florida with 165 mph winds, caused roughly $26 billion in damage, and caused 23 deaths.