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Travel during hurricane season: what to know as Florida prepares for ‘extremely dangerous’ Ian

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Hurricane Ian is on track to hit the Gulf Coast of Florida on Wednesday after the storm wiped out power in Cuba on Tuesday with catastrophic winds and flooding.

The US National Hurricane Center is warning of “life-threatening storm surge, catastrophic winds, and flooding” across the state now that Ian has strengthened into an “extremely dangerous” Category 4 storm. Over the weekend, President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for Florida, and already more than 2.5 million residents in the storm’s path have been evacuated.

If you’ve made plans to travel to Florida or the Caribbean, here’s what you need to know about Hurricane Ian and how it could impact your plans.

Are airlines canceling flights?

Yes. Ian is expected to make landfall between Tampa Bay and Fort Myers on Wednesday, and airports in or near Orlando, Tampa Bay, St Petersburg, and Sarasota have suspended operations until Thursday. More than 2,000 domestic flights were canceled on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to the flight-tracking website Flightaware.com. And about 1,800 flights were delayed on Tuesday.

Flight information board displayed canceled flights due to Hurricane Ian
Some airports in Florida have suspended operations as Ian draws near © Bloomberg / Getty Images

Should I consider changing my flight?

If you’re Gulf Coast or Caribbean-bound, you should consider changing your flight, but you’ll need to do so quickly. Similar to their Hurricane Fiona response, major airlines such as Delta, American, and Southwest are offering waivers for passengers in impacted regions, including Cuba, Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia. Policies differ from carrier to carrier, but you generally have to rebook within a tight timeframe to avail of the waiver.

Delta, for example, will issue no-fee changes for travel rebooked through October 3, while Southwest will offer a no-change fee until October 2. American is waiving checked bag fees and fees for carry-on pets traveling to or from affected airports and lifting limits on the number of carry-on pets allowed in cabins. It’s also adding reduced, last-minute fares for cities impacted by Ian, but it’s not offering change fee waivers on rebooked flights. If your flight is affected by Ian, check your airline’s website for detailed information on how to change your plans without incurring extra costs.

What if my cruise ship is supposed to port in an area hit by the storm?

Cruise lines are rerouting ships to avoid Ian and its aftermath. Carnival canceled two upcoming sailings due to port closures in Jacksonville and Tampa. At the same time, Royal Caribbean’s chief meteorologist James Van Fleet has been sharing rerouted itineraries so passengers can sail the Caribbean safely. The practice is common for cruise lines during hurricane season, which runs from June to November. Disney, Norwegian, MSC, and others have also updated itineraries to keep travelers out of the storm’s path.

People walk through a flooded street in Batabano, Cuba
Hurricane Ian wiped out Cuba’s power grid © Getty Images

What should I do if I’m a traveler in an impacted area?

Hurricane Ian wiped Cuba’s power grid on Tuesday, leaving 11 million people without electricity in a national blackout. Tens of thousands of people, including tourists, had been evacuated or had fled before Ian caused widespread flooding and damaged buildings. Teams have been working through the night to restore power, and people are being urged to exercise caution in the meantime.

As the storm bears closer to Florida, more than 2.5 million residents in its predicted path are under an evacuation order, with Florida governor Ron DeSantis warning that some bridges could close on Wednesday. At an emergency briefing at the White House on Tuesday, Deanne Criswell, spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said: “Take this very seriously, do not underestimate the potential this storm can bring. We are talking about impacts in parts of Florida that haven’t seen a major direct impact in nearly 100 years.”

How will the hurricane affect future travel to impacted areas?

Recovery will be ongoing. In Cuba, authorities are just beginning to assess the damage, but residents have posted images on social media of flooded streets, collapsed buildings, and felled trees. The western provinces were the hardest hit, but the entire island is still without power as of Wednesday morning. In addition to Ian, Florida is battling tornados and tropical storms, so tourists are advised to check the weather updates within the region they are traveling to.

Hurricane season will last until November, and more storms are on the way. Many Caribbean nations are still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Fiona last week, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Turks and Caicos. They will barely have time to catch their breath before another storm hits. Like the devastation caused in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria five years ago, rebuilding after a storm can be slow. Tourists should contact travel providers, hotels, and local businesses to ask about service changes before visiting.

A bicyclist rides past a sign reading, 'No Ice Cream for Ian,' painted on a building that is boarded up for the possible arrival of Hurricane Ian
Ian is expected to rip through Florida and the Gulf Coast © Getty Images

What destinations might be impacted next?

The National Hurricane Center expects Ian to make landfall in Florida on Wednesday, and heavy rainfall and flooding will continue to spread across the Florida Peninsula through the weekend. The storm won’t stop there. Southeastern Georgia and coastal South Carolina are expected to suffer “considerable flooding” over the next few days.