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Tropical Storm Ian about to have ‘rapid intensification,’ Florida track is uncertain

Tropical Storm Ian is expected to have “rapid intensification” today, grow into a major hurricane in the next 48 hours and eventually hit Florida – but many questions remain including when, where and how strong the storm will be at the time of landfall.

In its 5 a.m. Sunday update, the National Hurricane Center said Tropical Storm Ian had maximum-sustained winds of 50 mph. The storm was located about 345 miles south-southeast of Grand Cayman and moving to the west-northwest at 12 mph. A hurricane warning is in effect for Grand Cayman and a hurricane watch is in effect for parts of Cuba.

“The NHC intensity forecast calls for rapid intensification to begin later today, and forecasts Ian to be a major hurricane when it nears western Cuba in about 48 hours,” the NHC said in its early Sunday update. By Tuesday, the storm is expected to become a Category 3 hurricane with winds of 120 mph and a Category 4 on Wednesday with winds of 140 mph.

Computer forecast models agree Ian will hit Florida, but don’t agree on where. “There are still significant differences regarding the exact track of the storm, especially after 72 hours,” the NHC cautioned.

Two models, the UKMET and ECMWF, show the storm will make landfall in west-central Florida. Two other models, the GFS and HWRF, show the storm moving more west and take Ian into the central or western Florida panhandle.

This early Sunday morning satellite image shows Tropical Storm Ian spinning south of Cuba.

The hurricane center’s current forecast track for the storm basically splits the difference between the different models with the NHC’s best guess. “It cannot be overstated that significant uncertainty remains in Ian’s long-range prediction,” the NHC cautioned.

“Regardless of Ian’s exact track and intensity, there is a risk of dangerous storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of the week, and residents in Florida should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place, follow any advice given by local officials, and closely monitor updates to the forecast,” the hurricane center said.

Across Central Florida, residents were spending part of the weekend preparing for Ian’s possible arrival.

A Target store near Millenia had very few gallon bottles of water left on Saturday, as signs on the shelves limited purchases to four cases or bottles per customer.

“This is the third store I visited today,” said Maritza Osorio, who was leaving Target for a fourth location. “If not, we’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

There was fewer foot traffic through a Home Depot in the same plaza, with many people carrying water in their carts as others shopped for slabs of plywood to be used as shutters, along with other items.

The National Hurricane Center's key messages for Tropical Storm Ian and its impact on Florida and elsewhere.

Though it’s not yet clear whether, or how strongly, Ian will hit if it strikes Central Florida, people like Gary Wilson aren’t taking any chances. He’s had his hurricane kit ready with supplies weeks into the beginning of the season and was at Home Depot for final preparations, just in case.

“If anything happens, I’m ready,” Wilson said.

On Saturday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state of emergency order for all of the Sunshine State – expanding an order he issued Friday that declared in an emergency in two dozen counties. DeSantis also mobilized the National Guard to assist with storm prep and recovery.

The earliest reasonable arrival of tropical-storm-force winds from Ian.

“This storm has the potential to strengthen into a major hurricane and we encourage all Floridians to make their preparations,” DeSantis said in a statement. “We are coordinating with all state and local government partners to track potential impacts of this storm.”

President Joe Biden also declared an emergency for the state, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief efforts and provide assistance to protect lives and property.

The president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Orlando due to the storm.

Cristóbal Reyes of the Sentinel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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