The storm has forced millions of people to evacuate before it is expected to make landfall on the heavily populated Gulf Coast.

St. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Hurricane Ian has strengthened into a powerful Cat 4 storm that threatens millions of people as it approaches Florida.

The. The U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said at 5 a.m. Wednesday that Iona now had sustained winds of 140 mph (220 kph) and was centered about 75 miles (125 kilometers) west-southwest of Naples, Florida. It says Yang is moving north at 10 miles per hour (17 kilometers per hour).

The major hurricane prompted warnings of a potentially dangerous storm surge along the state’s heavily populated Gulf Coast from Bonita Beach to the Tampa Bay region.

Winds and rain began to pick up a day after Ian slammed into the western tip of Cuba as a dangerous major hurricane. The storm left more than 1 million people without power before intensifying over the Gulf of Mexico on its approach to the west coast of the Florida peninsula.

Florida residents have rushed to board up their homes, stash valuables upstairs and flee the oncoming Hurricane Ian, fearing the terrifying storm will knock out power everywhere. Cuba and its 11 million people would have slammed into their state’s west coast with catastrophic winds and flooding on Wednesday.

“You can’t do anything about natural disasters,” said Vinod Nair, who drove inland from the Tampa area on Tuesday with his wife, son, dog and two kittens in search of a hotel in Orlando’s tourist area. “We live in a high-risk area, so we thought it best to evacuate.”

Nair and his family were among at least 2.5 million Florida residents ordered to evacuate in anticipation of a powerful storm surge, strong winds and flooding. Buoyed by the warm Gulf of Mexico, Ian gathered strength after the Category 3 storm slammed into western Cuba, a prized tobacco-growing region, on Tuesday.

Tropical-storm-force winds of 39 mph (63 kph) reached Florida by 3 a.m., and hurricane-force winds were expected in Florida well before the eye moved inland, central Miami said.

“It’s a big storm, it’s going to push a lot of water when it comes in,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 in the storm’s projected path. At a press conference, he warned: “This is such a storm surge that threatens life.”

Ian’s movement over the Gulf has slowed, allowing the hurricane to grow wider and stronger. A hurricane warning covers approximately 220 miles (350 kilometers) of the state, including Fort Myers, as well as Tampa and St. Petersburg, which could receive their the first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.

The storm’s hurricane center was approaching the west coast of Florida, moving north-northeast at about 10 mph (17 kph) toward Naples. Sustained winds around 120 mph (193 kilometers per hour) with gusts.

Forecasters say the storm surge could reach 12 feet (3.6 meters) when it peaks at high tide. Rainfall near land may exceed 18 inches (46 centimeters).

Gil Gonzalez was taking no chances. He boarded up the windows of his Tampa home and put down sandbags to protect against flooding. Before evacuating, he and his wife packed their car with bottled water, flashlights, cell phone batteries and a stove.

“We put all the valuables upstairs at a friend’s house,” Gonzalez said.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Key West airports are closed. Orlando’s Disney World and Sea World theme parks closed ahead of the storm.

A husband and wife from England found themselves in a shelter before the storm while on vacation in Tampa. Glyn and Christine Williams from London were told to leave their hotel near the beach when the evacuation was ordered. Since the airport was closed, they could not fly home.

“Unfortunately, all the hotels are full or closed, so it looks like we’re going to end up in one of the shelters,” Christine Williams said.

Her husband insisted that everything would be fine. “You know, you have to go with the flow,” Glyn Williams said. “So we’re very happy with what we’re doing.”

The exact landfall location was still uncertain, but with Tropical Storm Ian’s winds extending 140 miles (225 kilometers) from its center, damage was expected across a wide area of ​​Florida. Flooding was possible across the state, and parts of its eastern coast faced a potential storm surge threat as Ian’s tracks approached the Atlantic Ocean. Individual tornado warnings were also issued.

Florida Power and Light warned those in Ian’s path to prepare for days without power. As a precaution, hundreds of residents were evacuated from several nursing homes in the Tampa area, where hospitals were also moving some patients.

Parts of Georgia and South Carolina may also see flooding and some coastal flooding on Saturday. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp preemptively declared a state of emergency, ordering 500 National Guard troops to be ready to respond if needed.

Before turning toward Florida, Ian slammed into Cuba’s Pinar del Río province with sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph) and wreaked havoc in the island nation’s world-famous tobacco belt.

Local government station TelePinar reported severe damage at the main hospital in the city of Pinar del Río, tweeting photos of collapsed ceilings, strewn debris and downed trees. There were no deaths. Some left the damaged area on foot with their children, while others tried to evacuate by bus through flooded streets. Others chose to stay in their damaged homes.

“It was terrible,” Pinar del Rio resident Yusimi Palacios said in her damaged home. “But we’re alive, and I’m only asking the Cuban revolution to help me with a roof and a mattress.”

Associated Press contributors include Cristina Mesquita in Havana, Cuba; Cody Jackson in Tampa, Florida; Frida Frisar in Miami; Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida; Mike Schneider in Orlando, Florida; Seth Borenstein in Washington and Bobby Cain Calvan in New York.