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Florida prepares for Hurricane Ian

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Hurricane Ian is getting bigger and stronger as it approaches Cuba. After it crosses over the island tomorrow, it will enter the Gulf of Mexico, where the warm waters are expected to further fuel the storm's explosive growth. It's forecast to reach major Category 4 status with winds above 140 miles per hour. Ian may weaken slightly as it nears Tampa and St Petersburg on Wednesday. But the storm surge could be as high as 10 feet. We'll begin our coverage today with Stephanie Colombini of member station WUSF in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOVEL SCRAPING)

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: People were waiting for hours to fill sandbags at a city-run site in south Tampa. In this community, streets can turn into rivers after just a few hours of rain. So if Ian pushes more water in from the coast, it could cause serious damage.

LISSIE ZIMMERMAN: The surge is definitely our biggest concern - storm surge.

COLOMBINI: Second grade teacher Lissie Zimmerman stood in line, holding a glass case. Crawling inside was a yellow and brown critter, the class pet she took home when area schools closed for the next few days.

ZIMMERMAN: This is Princess Sophia, the leopard gecko. She is evacuating with us.

COLOMBINI: Zimmerman is one of hundreds of thousands of residents who live in the coastal zones county officials have ordered to evacuate. She's planning to stay with family in south Florida, where she thinks she'll be out of harm's way. Five years ago, Hurricane Irma threatened Tampa but changed paths at the last minute. Zimmerman hopes Tampa will be as fortunate this time, too. For many new residents who flocked to the area since, this is their first time dealing with a hurricane. Charles Micheals (ph) moved here from Los Angeles earlier this year and says he had to ask a young woman in line for help with prep.

CHARLES MICHEALS: I said, well, what do you do for these sort of things? And she told me how to fill a sandbag, which I didn't know, how to tie a sandbag. And she said, you know, this isn't my first rodeo. And I said, this is my first rodeo.

COLOMBINI: He's planning to head away from the storm, too - far away.

MICHEALS: My bride booked a flight to Paris, and we're leaving tomorrow for Paris.

COLOMBINI: Not everyone has that luxury. And counties are opening emergency shelters for those with no place to go. People planning to hunker down have been clearing store shelves of water and nonperishable goods. Governor Ron DeSantis says retailers are working to resupply their stores. He urged people not to panic buy. But he stressed, though the exact path of this storm isn't certain, everyone should take it seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: Make sure that you have your plan in place. Finish whatever preparations you have. I mean, we're - this thing is coming this week. And we know that. And we know we're going to have some major impacts throughout the state of Florida.

COLOMBINI: The state has suspended tolls on roads in the area to make travel easier while it's still safe to drive. DeSantis says he's also mobilized thousands of Florida National Guard members, along with search and rescue teams, so they're ready to respond if needed. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.