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Hurricane Ian slams western Cuba as a Category 3 storm, threatening a path of destruction as it moves toward Florida

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Hurricane Ian was slamming western Cuba with high winds and heavy rain Tuesday morning on its way to western Florida, where officials are pleading with people to flee the coast ahead of what could be devastating storm surge in the Tampa region and flooding rains.

Ian, a Category 3 storm packing sustained winds of 125 mph, was poised to enter the Gulf of Mexico mid-morning Tuesday after crossing Cuba's tobacco-rich Pinar del Rio province, where it made landfall around 4:30 a.m., the National Hurricane Center said. Life-threatening storm surge, flash flooding and mudslides are possible there, forecasters said.

Ian appears headed to western Florida next, where rains and tropical storm-strength winds will begin Tuesday, with the system poised to deliver life-threatening storm surge -- ocean water pushed onto land -- and flooding rain Wednesday into Thursday morning as it first crawls along off the coast and then heads inland.

The storm could make landfall near or south of the Tampa Bay area late Wednesday or early Thursday as at least a Category 3 hurricane -- sustained winds of at least 111 mph -- and officials are warning: Leave the coast now.

"Today is really going to be your last day to ... actually move out (of) the storm surge warning area," Michael Brennan, acting deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told CNN on Tuesday morning.

The storm poses numerous perils for west-central Florida:

• Storm surge: A storm-surge warning -- meaning the surge could threaten life -- extends from north of Tampa to the peninsula's southern tip in the Everglades -- a coastline where nearly 7 million people live.

The worst -- 5 to 10 feet -- is forecast for Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. If that happens, that would smash the highest surge recorded in that area -- around 4 feet from 1985's Hurricane Elena and March 1993's "Storm of the Century."

• Rain: Totals could be 12-24 inches in Tampa and west-central Florida by Friday, posing numerous flooding threats. That's two or more months' worth of rain for that area, as the average September brings about 6 inches of rain there.

Damaging winds: A hurricane warning -- meaning winds of at least 74 mph are expected -- covers about 8 million people in parts of west and central Florida -- including an area from the Anclote River north of Tampa to Bonita Beach south of Fort Myers.

"So you're really looking at a multihazard, multiday-long event here in much of the western and central Florida peninsula," Brennan said.

In Cuba, more than 1 million people live in the three provinces -- Pinar del Rio, Isla de Juventud and Artemisa -- that experienced hurricane-force winds. The last major hurricane -- Category 3 or above -- to hit Cuba before Ian was Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Evacuations underway in Florida

The hurricane's menacing approach to Florida triggered preparations across the state as officials announced school closures and flight cancellations, and the military began moving ships and aircraft.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned of power outages as well as possible evacuations and fuel shortages, telling people to "make preparations now."

All along Florida's west coast, officials are urging residents to get out of harm's way instead of staying to protect their property. "This is nothing to mess around with. If you can leave, just leave now," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Monday.

Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued for parts of counties in the hurricane warning area stretching from north of Tampa to the Fort Myers area. That included Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the Tampa area, Hernando, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, and parts of Lee County, which encompasses Fort Myers. Emergency shelters were opened.

"When we issued that mandatory evacuation, what that means is if you don't and you call for help, we're not coming because we're not going to put our people in harm's way and put them in peril because you didn't listen to what we told you to do," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

With tropical storm conditions possibly beginning Tuesday night, officials are concerned about Ian's storm surge. The Tampa Bay region is particularly vulnerable to storm surge and could see catastrophic damage from flooding -- even if the area doesn't get a direct hit from the hurricane.

Tampa Electric said it may have to proactively shut down power in the southern tip of downtown early Wednesday in an effort to "avoid serious damage to the underground equipment from saltwater storm surge, which will significantly shorten restoration time after the storm."

Tampa Bay International Airport will suspend operations at 5 p.m. Tuesday, DeSantis said.

Around the state, residents were waiting in long lines Monday to fill bags of sand or pick up bottled water in preparation for the storm's arrival.

Resident Khadijah Jones told CNN she was in line for three hours Monday to get free sandbags in Tampa, uncertain if her home will flood.

"Just doing the basics ... securing loose materials in the yard, sandbags in low areas, and getting items to prep for no power," she said.

As the storm approaches a slew of closures and cancellations have been announced.

The HCA Florida Pasadena Hospital in St. Petersburg announced it has suspended services and transferred patients.

Colleges and universities across the state -- including Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach and University of South Florida in Tampa -- are taking steps to prepare, including campus evacuations or a shift to online classes.

On the K-12 level, Hillsborough County Schools canceled classes as campuses become storm shelters. And surrounding counties, including Citrus, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando have also announced school closures this week.

Disney World announced some temporary resort closures from Wednesday through Friday due to the weather conditions. At least three cruise lines also began rerouting passengers due to the hurricane.

Help is pouring in ahead of landfall

To help ease congestion on the roads for those leaving evacuation zones, the Florida Department of Transportation will likely authorize emergency shoulder use, which allows drivers to use shoulders at slower speeds, Kevin Guthrie, Florida's emergency management director, said.

As residents are urged to leave, officials are staging people and equipment to quickly respond when recovery begins.

With widespread power outages likely, Florida Power and Light announced it activated its emergency response plan, mobilizing 13,000 personnel. The company will work to restore power "as long as it's safe to do so," the release said, including using smart grid technology to remotely restore power to customers where possible.

Resources from outside the state are also pouring in, Guthrie said.

The Florida National Guard activated 5,000 Florida soldiers and 2,000 additional soldiers from Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, DeSantis announced Monday.

President Joe Biden on Saturday approved a disaster declaration for Ian.

"The President's action authorizes the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population," the White House said in a news release.

US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a public health emergency for the state of Florida -- a move meant to give health care providers and suppliers greater flexibility in meeting emergency health needs, his office said.

"We will do all we can to assist Florida officials with responding to the health impacts of Hurricane Ian," Becerra said. "We are working closely with state, local, and tribal health authorities, as well as our federal partners, and stand ready to provide additional public health and medical support."

Sign up for CNN's free Weather Brief newsletter to get email updates on Hurricane Ian.

The-CNN-Wire

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CNN's Brandon Miller, Amir Vera, Jamiel Lynch, Amanda Jackson and Robert Shackelford contributed to this report.

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