Ian has became a major Category 3 storm and roars on a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water.
Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and cleared store shelves of bottled water. (Reuters)

A strengthening Hurricane Ian’s rain and winds have lashed Cuba’s western tip, where authorities have evacuated 50,000 people.

It became a major Category 3 storm early on Tuesday and roared on a path that could see it hit Florida’s west coast as a Category 4 hurricane.

Earlier in the day, the storm made landfall in Cuba’s Pinar del Rio province, where officials set up 55 shelters, rushed in emergency personnel and took steps to protect crops in Cuba’s main tobacco-growing region.

The US National Hurricane Centre said the island’s west coast could see as much as 14 feet (4.3 metres) of storm surge.

“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life-threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” hurricane centre senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press news agency.

After passing over Cuba, Ian was forecast to strengthen further over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before reaching Florida as early as Wednesday as a Category 4 storm with top winds of 140 mph (225 km/h).

As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said Monday at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.

In Havana on Monday, fishermen were taking their boats out of the water along the famous Malecon seaside boulevard, and city workers were unclogging storm drains ahead of the expected rain.

READ MORE: Tropical Storm Ian intensifies, heads to Cuba, Florida

Satellite image released by NASA shows Hurricane Ian growing stronger as it barreled toward Cuba.
Satellite image released by NASA shows Hurricane Ian growing stronger as it barreled toward Cuba. (AP)

Alarm sounded

The Hurricane Centre said in a 4:30am EDT (0830 GMT) update that Ian made landfall in Cuba as it continued to strengthen, with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 km/h).

The centre defines a major hurricane as a Category 3 storm or higher, meaning maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph (178 km/h), and Ia n became a Category 3 hurricane earlier Tuesday.

The centre said “significant wind and storm surge impacts” were expected Tuesday morning in western Cuba.

Ian won't linger over Cuba but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, "which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane centre said.

A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimetres) of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimetres) inches in isolated areas. That's enough water to inundate coastal communities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state’s Gulf Coast.

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

READ MORE: Florida declares emergency as Tropical Storm Ian strengthens

Source: AP