Florida braces for potentially 'catastrophic' Hurricane Ian. Here’s what you need to know ahead of landfall.

A quiet start to the Atlantic hurricane season has been all but forgotten as a powerful storm barrels toward Florida this week with the potential to hit as a catastrophic Category 4.

Current forecasting models predict Hurricane Ian will head directly toward Florida’s west coast, making landfall somewhere between Fort Myers and Tampa Bay late Wednesday into early Thursday.

On Tuesday, the storm ripped through Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane and was expected to intensify. Officials have ordered around 2.5 million people to evacuate.

The National Weather Service warned on Tuesday that life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds and heavy rainfall are expected across various areas of Florida. “Residents should rush all preparations to completion today,” officials said.

Millions ordered to evacuate

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said an estimated 2.5 million people were under evacuation orders. “When you have five to 10 feet of storm surge, that is not something you want to be a part of,” he cautioned. “And Mother Nature is a very fearsome adversary.”

Jamie Rhome, acting National Hurricane Center director, said “time is really ticking” ahead of Ian making landfall in the state. “If you’re in the path of this storm and you’ve been ordered to evacuate, you really should do so. We’re really concerned about this area,” he said.

A man boards up his hardware store in advance of Hurricane Ian
A man boards up his hardware store in advance of Hurricane Ian on Tuesday. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Residents in at least 18 of Florida’s 67 counties are under some form of an evacuation order. Several counties have issued both mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders for various zones.

In Hillsborough, Hernando, Pasco, Manatee, Pinellas, Sarasota, Charlotte, Citrus, Lee and Levy counties officials have issued mandatory evacuation orders. In Taylor, Highlands, Glades, Clay, Gilchrist and Collier counties, residents are under voluntary evacuation orders.

In Putnam County, it was recommended residents living in low-lying areas that are prone to flooding should evacuate.

St. Johns County ordered evacuations to start at 6 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning.

Authorities warn that those living in mobile or manufactured homes in vulnerable areas should evacuate — even if they are not located in an evacuation area. More detailed information on evacuation orders issued this week can be found at FloridaDisaster.org.

People line up to get sand bags in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa
People line up to get sand bags in preparation for the arrival of Hurricane Ian in Tampa. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images)

DeSantis announced that Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing group, has activated its emergency accommodations module with Expedia that helps state residents and visitors find hotels and lodging.

Shelters throughout Florida have started to open their doors ahead of Hurricane Ian. The state offers two types of shelters: general population and special needs. Here’s a list of shelters available by county. Double check to see if they are pet-friendly and remember to try to bring your own bed linens, hygiene items and personal medication.

Additionally, the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama announced that starting Wednesday morning, anyone evacuating the storm will have access to a portion of the motorsports complex’s campground for free.

The Insurance Information Institute created a list of some important items to bring along while evacuating, such as bottled water, clothing and bedding, prescriptions, first aid kits and important documents.

Emergency services available

Because DeSantis declared a state of emergency due to the impending storm, Floridians can — according to state law — fill their prescriptions early, in case pharmacies are temporarily shut down.

While some hospitals and nursing homes are evacuating patients, several of the major hospitals are staying open, including Tampa General and John Hopkins All Children’s in St. Petersburg. Both hospitals have, however, suspended elective and noncritical surgeries.

The shelves in a grocery store are empty as people stock up on items in preparation for the predicted arrival of Hurricane Ian
The shelves in a grocery store are empty as people stock up on items in preparation for the predicted arrival of Hurricane Ian. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Additionally, most Veterans Affairs health clinics in vulnerable areas are closing this week but some will remain open.

President Biden declared a federal state of emergency for multiple Florida counties, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property.

Last-minute preparation

Many counties across Florida are offering free sandbags to residents. Sandbags can protect homes by blocking water from entering during flooding.

Residents of the following counties can find out where sandbags may still be available: Sumter, Wakulla, Tampa, Orange, North Miami Beach, Gadsden and Leon.

Experts recommend securing your home and property ahead of a storm by trimming trees, installing storm shutters and moving outdoor furniture to a safe place. According to FEMA, old garage doors should be replaced, and outside wall openings like electrical outlets and vents should be sealed with caulk to prevent water from getting through.

Cover thumbnail photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP