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Ian strengthens into hurricane as Florida, Cuba brace for possible floods

Tropical storm Ian strengthened into a hurricane Monday as Florida prepared for possible floods this week.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm is expected to strengthen rapidly during the next day or so and become a major hurricane as it nears western Cuba, where it is expected to expected to “produce significant wind and storm surge impacts.”

As of early Monday, the storm’s maximum sustained winds had strengthened to nearly 75 mph, with higher gusts, the hurricane center said.

A hurricane watch was issued along the west coast of Florida from north of Englewood to the Anclote River, including Tampa Bay as the storm barreled toward the state, the NHC said.

The center of Ian is expected to pass near or west of the Cayman Islands Monday, and near or over western Cuba later Monday evening and early Tuesday, the NHC said.

“Ian will then emerge over the southeastern Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday, and pass west of the Florida Keys late Tuesday, and approach the west coast of Florida on Wednesday,” it said.

People fill their allotted ten free sandbags to prepare for tropical storm Ian’s arrival in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday.Luis Santana / Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Press

Earlier, the NHC had warned of the possibility of “considerable flooding impacts” later this week in west central Florida. Meanwhile, additional flash and urban flooding, as well as flooding on rivers across the Florida Peninsula and the Southeast “cannot be ruled out” for later this week, it said.

“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 this week, and residents in Florida should ensure they have their hurricane plan in place,” it said.

In photos captured Sunday, residents in Tampa, Florida, could be seen filling sandbags to help prevent against flooding ahead of the storm.

In Kissimmee, about an hour northeast of Tampa, a long line of shoppers could be seen waiting outside a store in a race to stock up on supplies ahead of Ian’s arrival. A number of people could be seen carting several cases of water bottles out of the store.

“Life-threatening” storm surge and hurricane-force winds are also expected to hit parts of western Cuba starting late Monday, with Ian expected to be at or near major hurricane strength by the time it nears western Cuba.

Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province and said they would start evacuations Monday in preparation for the storm.

Cuba state media outlet Granma reported that authorities planned to start evacuating people from vulnerable areas early Monday in the far-western province.

“Efforts to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” the NHC warned.

The Associated Press contributed.

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