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Millions in Florida urged to evacuate as Ian strengthens to 'extremely dangerous' storm

Shelves are empty in a supermarket's water aisle in Kissimmee, Florida, US, on Sep. 27. (Via Getty Images)

Millions of Americans in the western coast of the state of Florida have been urged to evacuate as Hurricane Ian drew near, threatening to bring a deadly storm surge.

People boarded up homes, packed up their vehicles and headed for higher ground as Hurricane Ian has strengthened into an "extremely dangerous" Category 4 storm.

"Air Force hurricane hunters find Ian has strengthened into an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane," the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said in an advisory issued at 5 am (0900 GMT), adding the storm was "expected to cause life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds and flooding".

Ian earlier slammed into Cuba, leaving the entire country without power, forcing mass evacuations and swamping fishing villages.

More than 2.5 million Floridians were under evacuation orders or warnings with the sprawling storm on track to make landfall.

The latest 8 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) hurricane advisory put Ian's top winds at 120 mph (195 km per hour).

Ian was most likely to come ashore south of Tampa near Sarasota, NHC said. That region - home to miles of sandy beaches, scores of resort hotels and numerous mobile home parks - is a favorite with retirees and vacationers alike.

While predictions remained imprecise for where the storm would come ashore, "the impacts are going to be far, far broader than just where the eye of the storm happens to make landfall," Governor Ron DeSantis said.

DeSantis warned of the potential for devastating Hurricane Harvey-like flooding that struck the Houston area in 2017, the result of a slow-moving storm piling up high water.

Florida's director of emergency management, Kevin Guthrie, urged residents in evacuation zones to move to safety.

"The time to evacuate is now. Get on the road," he said.

It also may prove one of the costliest as the latest simulations projected storm-related damages ranging from $38 billion to more than $60 billion, Enki Research said on Tuesday.

'Schools closed; over 2,000 US flights cancelled'

Nearly 60 Florida school districts were either closed Tuesday or planned to be closed by Wednesday, DeSantis said.

Many of those schools were designated as shelters for the storm and its aftermath.

Commercial airlines canceled more than 2,000 US flights due to the storm.

Tampa Electric warned customers to be prepared for "extended outages." The company will institute a "targeted interruption" of service to a part of downtown Tampa on the western edge of the city. That area has already been evacuated.

The Caribbean and parts of eastern Canada are still counting the cost of powerful storm Fiona, which tore through last week, claiming several lives.

Half a million residents in the US territory of Puerto Rico were still without power, according to a tracking website.

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