Florida fortifies Tampa amid threats of flooding from hurricane

Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday said the state is continuing to prepare ahead of Hurricane Ian, including sending hundreds of medical personnel, mobile generators and water pumps to the Tampa-area where the storm is expected to make landfall.

The storm, which could turn into a powerful Category 4 hurricane before it hits Florida’s gulf coast, could be 500 miles wide — making it potentially larger than Hurricane Irma, the 2017 storm that was 400 miles wide and battered much of the state. Forecasters at the National Weather Service in Miami predict that Ian will strengthen after it crosses Cuba, but that could change.

“At that point, I think we're going to have a pretty good sense of what's going on, but this has really developed into a really big storm,” DeSantis told reporters at the state Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee. “Just the impacts are going to be far and wide."

Ian is expected to make landfall near Levy County, which is north of Tampa Bay, and is expected to bring rain, flooding and dangerous storm surges. DeSantis said the state Division of Emergency Management has already summoned more than 300 medical professionals to special needs shelters around Tampa Bay, along with 300 ambulances and hundreds of mobile generators and pumps to help mitigate power losses and flooding in the region. Voluntary evacuations have already begun farther down the coast in Collier County.

DeSantis said localities will declare more evacuations throughout the day.

“Be on the lookout for that because I know we've been conferring with a lot of local officials that those are going to happen,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis declared a state of emergency well ahead of Ian’s landfall last week. President Joe Biden on Saturday also announced an emergency for Florida, which allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help coordinate assistance. The Republican governor so far, has deployed 5,000 members of the Florida National Guard to assist with storm preparations. A state official said an additional 2,000 guardsmen from Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee have been called in to help.

The potential flooding from Ian could leave thousands of residents without power even if the eye of the storm remains off shore. National Guard Major General James O. Eifert on Monday said he expects to reposition troops as the path of the storm becomes more clear.

“We're also assessing constantly the location and path of the storm, and repositioning and pre-positioning our resources and our people to be able to most immediately and effectively respond once the landfall has passed,” Eifert said. “So we're here, we're ready.”

DeSantis said the state also faces the challenge of refilling gasoline stations in regions where fuel is shipped into one of the state’s seaports. Florida Division of Emergency Management Director Kevin Guthrie said the Port of Tampa Bay is expected to close but ports along the Atlantic coast are expected to remain open. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Brendan McPherson is scheduled to arrive in the state Tuesday to make plans.

“He has already prepared to expedite the opening of those ports and getting back open so we can get that in there,” Guthrie said of McPherson.

To ease travel, DeSantis said he has removed tolls on major thoroughfares along the Gulf Coast, from Okaloosa County to Alligator Alley in South Florida, and waived weight restrictions that make it easier for trucks to bring in supplies from outside the state. For instance, one of the largest gasoline suppliers serving north Florida is in Bainbridge, Ga., which is about 40 miles away from Tallahassee. The location was instrumental in delivering fuel to the state after Hurricane Irma closed ports on both sides of the state after it made landfall in September 2017.

DeSantis also warned residents not to hoard supplies. Publix Super Markets, which has more than 700 locations in the state, is already seeing residents buying tons of supplies ahead of the storm.

“There’s no need to panic buy,” DeSantis said. “If you normally don’t drink a lot of water you don’t need to buy 20 gallons of water.”