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Florida residents are being urged to heed evacuation orders as Hurricane Ian nears

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two and a half million people in Florida are now being told to evacuate their homes before the arrival of Hurricane Ian. Ian is now a powerful Category 3 hurricane with winds near 120 miles per hour. The storm hit Cuba earlier today and is headed towards Florida's Gulf Coast. The National Hurricane Center expects it to make landfall tomorrow south of Tampa Bay in Sarasota County. Here's Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

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RON DESANTIS: That is going to be a lot of inundation, a lot of surge in places like Charlotte County, places like Lee County, of course, Sarasota as well. But what that will also do is likely bring it to cut it across the state of Florida.

CHANG: NPR's Greg Allen joins us now from St. Petersburg. Hi, Greg.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So let's talk about what this latest forecast means for all the communities along Florida's Gulf Coast. Who is likely to be most affected, you think?

ALLEN: Well, Ian is a huge storm, just hundreds of miles wide, and so most of Florida will get impacts from the storm. If Ian maintains the strength, the high winds are going to cause major damage in that area between Sarasota and Fort Myers. There'll be - trees will be toppled. It will knock out power and damage buildings. There are also expected to be isolated tornadoes. Florida - as Florida's emergency management director Kevin Guthrie says, widespread power outages are certain. And he says cellphones will likely be out for many people as well.

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KEVIN GUTHRIE: During previous hurricanes, the cell towers did go down. We expect them to go down in this particular event.

ALLEN: Hurricane-force winds extend about 35 miles from the center. So that's going to be a wide swath of damage as Ian makes landfall and just moves inland.

CHANG: And another big concern, as we keep hearing, is flooding, right? Like, what area is most threatened by a high storm surge at this point?

ALLEN: Well, the National Hurricane Center says the area around Sarasota and Fort Myers may see an 8- to 12-foot storm surge. In Tampa Bay, the storm surge threat has actually been reduced a bit as the storm's track has changed, but it's still expected to get 4 to 7 feet of surge, which is likely to cause some flooding in this area. The storm is so big, it's bringing a lot of rain to most of the state. Some areas may get as much as two feet of rain. And besides a storm surge, there's concerns that extreme rain may cause a lot of inland flooding, and so that's something to be watching for. Search and rescue teams are on standby to respond if people find themselves in danger from rising floodwaters.

CHANG: The thing is, Florida has seen disasters like this before. So how prepared do you think the state is to respond after this storm hits?

ALLEN: Well, Governor DeSantis and his administration say they're ready, you know, but the federal government has an important role to play in any recovery. And DeSantis, who is seen as a likely Republican presidential candidate, has been a harsh critic of President Biden on a number of issues. In the lead-up to this hurricane, it's been notable that Biden and DeSantis haven't spoken. That's something that's routine in situations like this. FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell was asked about that today. She said the administration is focused on getting Florida what it needs.

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DEANNE CRISWELL: We do not bring politics into our ability to respond to these disasters. We are going to support whatever Governor DeSantis asks of us. We signed his emergency declaration within hours of him sending it in. We'll continue to do that as we see what the impacts of the storm are.

ALLEN: With the onset of Ian, DeSantis has also adopted a new tone now and has set politics aside, talking about all the preparations. There's thousands of National Guardsmen activated, and the state has 27,000 utility workers on standby, ready to get to work restoring power as soon as they can.

CHANG: That is NPR's Greg Allen in St. Petersburg. Thank you, Greg.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Greg Allen
As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.