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Hurricane Ian, now a powerful category 4 storm, lashed the west coast of Cuba with wind and heavy rains amid dangerous storm surge after making landfall early on Tuesday.

Two people have been killed and millions left without power after the storm hammered one of the island’s main power plants.

Authorities in the Pinar del Rio province have evacuated 50,000 people from the area and set up at least 55 shelters.

Eight million people were in the bullseye of Ian as the storm strengthened to just shy of a monstrous Category 5 status on Wednesday morning.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told residents that Ian is “knocking on the door of a Category 5” and described it as the “real deal” before urging residents to “hunker down”.

Mandatory evacuations of several hundred thousand people were underway and continuing in the Sunshine State on Wednesday. Locals are bracing for strong winds, flash floods and isolated tornadoes.

The National Hurricane Center said in its latest update that the “extremely dangerous” eyewall of Ian was moving onshore at noon (eastern time) in Florida. Specifically, the southwest Florida coast from Englewood to Bonita Beach, including Charlotte Harbor.

The large cities of Fort Myers, Tampa and St Petersburg are expected to be impacted. They have not faced a direct hit from a major hurricane since 1921.

Tropical storm conditions were felt in west central Florida on Tuesday and hurricane force winds are expected to hit 140mph on Wednesday morning as Ian progresses from the Florida Keys northwards, ultimately bringing heavy rainfall as far as Lake Okeechobee, near West Palm Beach.

Neighbouring states could also experience impacts, the NHC warned.

“Considerable flooding is expected across central Florida into southern Georgia and coastal South Carolina, with significant, prolonged river flooding expected across central to northern Florida,” the agency stated.

“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” said Hillsborough County emergency management director Timothy Dudley on Monday in Tampa.

Initially, a storm surge of up to 10 feet of ocean water had been predicted across the Tampa Bay area along with 10 inches of rain, with as much as 15 inches in isolated areas – enough water to inundate coastal communities. The NHC changed that warning to an “unsurviveable” storm surge of up to 18 feet in places on the west coast on Wednesday.

Speaking at a press briefing on Monday, Mr DeSantis urged the public not to panic buy as the storm approaches as thousands queued for bottled water, supplies and sand bags.

“You have a significant storm that may end up being a category 4 hurricane,” Mr DeSantis said.

“That’s going to cause a huge amount of storm surge. You’re going to have flood events. You’re going to have a lot of different impacts.”

The governor said the state has suspended tolls around Tampa Bay and mobilised 5,000 National Guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighbouring states.

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