Huge Hurricane Ian has made landfall in the United States amid fears it could have a ‘catastrophic impact’ as it worms its way through populated areas of Florida.
Forecasters are worried as new images from Ian have revealed the eye of the storm is up to five times larger than previous killer hurricanes.
There are warnings that people ‘will not survive’ if caught in five-meter high waves and winds of around 250 km/h.
“This is going to be a storm we talk about for many years to come. This is a historic event,” National Weather Service Director Ken Graham said.
Terrifying images of the devastation already caused by the hurricane swept through social media.
But a video of a man rescuing a cat from floodwaters has melted hearts online, earning more than 1.6 million views.
“My boyfriend saves a cat from flood waters near Bonita Beach,” Megan Cruz Scavo wrote on Twitter.
The man is seen wading through raging floodwaters to gently rescue a terrified cat curled up atop a perch next to a house, carrying the animal over his shoulder.
“I’m screaming my eyes out,” one user replied.
Although no deaths have yet been reported in the continental United States, 23 Cuban migrants are believed to be missing after the boat they were sailing in sank off the Florida Keys on Wednesday.
At least two people died as the storm passed through Cuba on Tuesday.
The Category 4 force storm made landfall in Cayo Costa, just north of the city of Fort Myers, Wednesday at 3:05 p.m. US time (5:05 a.m. Thursday AEST). Winds of 241 km/h were recorded when it hit.
If the winds had been a few km/h stronger, it would have been a Category 5 storm.
Fort Myers, 200 km south of Tampa, has nearly 800,000 inhabitants. Millions of Floridians are in the storm’s path.
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After passing through western Cuba, Ian then followed the west coast of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico.
Earlier Wednesday in Tampa Bay, the water literally receded from the shore, sucked in by the hurricane. As the storm approaches, all of this water and more will return potentially flooding towns across the bay.
The US National Hurricane Center didn’t mince words when it said Ian would bring “catastrophic” storm surges, winds and flooding to the state.
This sentiment was echoed by Deanne Criswell of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“There are going to be catastrophic impacts, and not just where we are going to see the storm make landfall, but we are also very concerned about any flooding inland because it brings a lot of rain and it is going to move slowly. “, did she say CNN.
Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was even more blunt in warning of storm surges of up to 16 feet (5 meters) around the Fort Myers area.
“I’m six feet tall. It’s almost three times my size,” he said.
“It’s not just the rising waters from the storm surge, it’s the breaking waves that will be driven by those 155 kph (250 kph) winds.
“These waves can destroy buildings. It’s not a situation you’re going to survive in,” Brennan said.
Ian’s eye dwarfs other storms
Images of the eye of the storm have shaken forecasters. Usually the eye – the heart of the storm – is relatively small.
Its eye is about 56 km wide. Hurricane Charley, which hit Florida in 2004 and killed 10 people, had an eye only 11 km wide before making landfall.
Indeed, the current Hurricane Charley could fit in the eye of Hurricane Ian.
While the eye itself is an area of relative calm, the surrounding eyewall is a ring of powerful thunderstorms and damaging winds. A large eyewall, as in the case of Ian, means that these devastating storms will take longer to pass.
Ian’s eyewall has undergone a ‘replacement’ within the last 12 hours. This occurs when a larger wall of thunderstorms surrounds and replaces the smaller eye wall.
Fort Myers CCTV cameras, mounted several feet off the ground, were inundated with water.
While nearby to the south of the coastal city of Naples, a shark was seen swimming through a flooded suburban street.
Other images showed homes washed away in Naples.
Some 850,000 homes are already without electricity.
But that was a “drop in the bucket” compared to the outages expected over the next 48 hours, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.
“It’s going to be a very bad day, two days,” he added.
Ian is expected to head north across the state, then out into the Atlantic. But it’s possible it could then make landfall again around Georgia or South Carolina.
Tampa, Miami and Orlando airports have halted commercial flights.
Disney World asked all hotel guests to shelter in place and said its theme parks and water parks would be temporarily closed Wednesday and Thursday.
And the American restaurant chain Waffle House is closing several locations across the state.
The beloved restaurant franchise is known for staying open even in bad weather, FoxNews reports.
The decision to close before the hurricane landed was considered a bad omen according to the so-called Waffle House Index.
On Tuesday, Ian plunged all of Cuba into darkness after battling the west of the country as a Category 3 for more than five hours before setting off again over the Gulf of Mexico, AFP reported.
The storm damaged Cuba’s power grid and left the island “without electric service”, state power company Union Electrica said.
Only the few people with gasoline generators had electricity on the island of more than 11 million people.
In the United States, the Pentagon said 3,200 National Guardsmen had been called to Florida, and another 1,800 were on their way.
DeSantis said state and federal responders were assigning thousands of people to the storm response.
“There will be thousands of Floridians who will need help to rebuild,” he said.
— with Fox News and AFP