HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Ian was growing stronger as it approached the western tip of Cuba on a track to hit the west coast of Florida as a major hurricane as early as Wednesday.
Ian was forecast to hit the western tip of Cuba as a major hurricane and then become an even stronger Category 4 with top winds of 140 miles (225 kilometers) over warm Gulf of Mexico waters before striking Florida.
As of Monday, Tampa and St. Petersburg appeared to be the among the most likely targets for their first direct hit by a major hurricane since 1921.
“Please treat this storm seriously. It’s the real deal. This is not a drill,” Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said at a news conference on storm preparations in Tampa.
Authorities in Cuba suspended classes in Pinar del Rio province, sent in medical and emergency personnel, planned to evacuate 20 communities “in the shortest time possible,” and took steps to protect food and other crops in warehouses, according to state media.
“Cuba is expecting extreme hurricane-force winds, also life threatening storm surge and heavy rainfall,” U.S. National Hurricane Center senior specialist Daniel Brown told The Associated Press early Monday.
At 11 a.m. EDT on Monday, Ian was moving northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), about 240 miles (385 kilometers) southeast of the western tip of Cuba, with top sustained winds increasing to 80 mph (130 kph).
The center of the hurricane was passing to the west of the Cayman Islands, where Premier Wayne Panton said the government and its opposition were working together to keep the people as safe as possible. “We must prepare for the worst and absolutely pray and hope for the best,” Panton said in a video posted Sunday.
Ian won’t linger over Cuba, but will slow down over the Gulf of Mexico, growing wider and stronger, “which will have the potential to produce significant wind and storm surge impacts along the west coast of Florida,” the hurricane center said.
A surge of up to 10 feet (3 meters) of ocean water and 10 inches (25 centimeters) of rain was predicted across the Tampa Bay area, with as much as 15 inches (38 centimeters) inches in isolated areas. That’s enough water to inundate coastal communities.
As many as 300,000 people may be evacuated from low-lying areas in Hillsborough County alone, county administrator Bonnie Wise said. Some of those evacuations were beginning Monday afternoon in the most vulnerable areas, with schools and other locations opening as shelters.
“We must do everything we can to protect our residents. Time is of the essence,” Wise said.
Floridians lined up for hours in Tampa to collect bags of sand and clearing store shelves of bottled water. Across the peninsula in Titusville, generators, gas cans, chain saws and weather radios were in demand, Ace hardware store owner Bill Pastermack said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a statewide emergency, and warned that Ian could lash large areas of the state, knocking out power and interrupting fuel supplies as it swirls northward off the state’s Gulf coast.
“You have a significant storm that may end up being a Category 4 hurricane,” 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,” he said at a news conference in Tallahassee.
DeSantis said the state has suspended tolls around the Tampa Bay area and mobilized 5,000 Florida state national guard troops, with another 2,000 on standby in neighboring states.
President Joe Biden also declared an emergency, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to coordinate disaster relief and provide assistance to protect lives and property. The president postponed a scheduled Sept. 27 trip to Florida because of the storm.
Playing it safe, NASA began slowly rolling its moon rocket from the launch pad to its Kennedy Space Center hangar, adding weeks of delay to the test flight.
Flash and urban flooding was predicted for much of the Florida peninsula, and then heavy rainfall was possible for the southeast United States later this week. With tropical storm force winds extending 115 miles (185 kilometers) from Ian’s center, watches covered the Florida Keys to Lake Okeechobee.
Bob Gualtieri, sheriff of Pinellas County, Florida, which includes St. Petersburg, said in a briefing that while no one will be forced to leave, “mandatory” evacuation orders are expected to begin Tuesday.
“What it means is, we’re not going to come help you. If you don’t do it, you’re on your own,” Gualtieri said.
Zones to be evacuated include all along Tampa Bay and the rivers that feed it, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa International Airport and well-known neighborhoods such as parts of Hyde Park, Davis Islands and Ybor City.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch urged residents not to ignore any evacuation orders. “This is a very real threat that this storm poses to our community,” Welch said.
The hurricane center has advised Floridians to have survival plans in place and monitor updates of the storm’s evolving path.
“The biggest problem is that people tend to wait until the last minute,” Pastermack said between customers. “I’m always the last person to get prepared, which is kind of ironic.”
Associated Press contributors include Curt Anderson in St. Petersburg, Florida, Anthony Izaguirre in Tallahassee, Florida, and Julie Walker in New York.
Cristiana Mesquita And Curt Anderson, The Associated Press
Migrants hoping to reach US continue north through Mexico by train amid historic migration levels
Migrants stand alongside a rail track as a northbound freight train pulls into Irapuato, Mexico, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
By Megan Janetsky in Irapuato
IRAPUATO, Mexico (AP) — As a train roared in the distance, some 5,000 mostly Venezuelan migrants hoping to make it to the U.S. snapped into action.
Families with young children sleeping on top of cardboard boxes and young men and women tucked away in tents under a nearby bridge scrambled to pack their things. After the train arrived on the outskirts of the central Mexican city of Irapuato, some swung their bodies over its metal trailers with ease, while others tossed up bags and handed up their small children swaddled in winter coats.
“Come up, come up,” migrants atop the train urged those below. Others yelled, “God bless Mexico!”
After three days of waiting for the train that many in the group worried would never come, this was their ticket north to Mexico’s border with the United States.
Thousands of other migrants were stranded in other parts of the country last week after Mexico’s biggest railroad said it halted 60 freight trains. The company, Ferromex, said so many migrants were hitching rides on the trains that it became unsafe to move the trains. The company said it had seen a “half dozen regrettable cases of injuries or deaths” in a span of just days.
When the train arrived Saturday, “Ferromex” was painted on many of the gondolas. Local police were stationed around the improvised camp where the migrants had been waiting, but when the train stopped for about 30 minutes there was no attempt to stop migrants from climbing aboard.
Despite violence from drug cartels and the dangers that come with riding atop the train cars, such freight trains — known collectively as “The Beast” — have long been used by migrants to travel north.
The closures temporarily cut off one of the most transited migratory routes in the country at a time of surging migration, and left families like Mayela Villegas’ in limbo.
Villegas, her partner and their six children had spent three days sleeping on the concrete ground surrounded by masses of other migrants. Before boarding the train, the Venezuelan family said they had packed food for only a few days of train rides and struggled to feed their kids.
”The more days we are here, the less food we have. Thankfully people here have helped us, have given us bread,” Villegas said. “We’re sleeping here because we don’t have anything to pay for a room or hotel. We don’t have the funds.”
The halting of the train routes also underscores the historic numbers of people heading north in search of a new life in the United States, and the dilemma it poses for countries across the Americas as they struggle to cope with the sheer quantities of migrants traversing their territories.
When several thousand migrants crossed into Eagle Pass, Texas, over a few days the border town declared an emergency.
In August, the U.S. Border Patrol made 181,509 arrests at the Mexican border, up 37% from July but little changed from August 2022 and well below the high of more than 220,000 in December, according to figures released Friday.
It reversed a plunge in the numbers after new asylum restrictions were introduced in May. That comes after years of steadily rising migration levels produced by economic crisis and political and social turmoil in many of the countries people are fleeing.
Once, just dozens of migrants from Central American countries would pass through Irapuato by train each day, said Marta Ponce, a 73-year-old from who has spent more than a decade providing aid to those who travel the tracks running through her town.
Now, that number often reaches the thousands.
“We once thought that 50 or 60 people was massive, now it’s normal,” Ponce said. “It has grown a lot, a lot, a lot.”
And migrants come from all over. Ponce noted that Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic crisis in their country are in the overwhelming majority, but she’s seen people from around the world, including African nations, Russia and Ukraine.
Most travel through the Darien Gap, a dayslong trek across the rugged Colombia-Panama border. The crossing was once so dangerous that few dared to attempt it, but now so many migrants flood through its dense jungles that it’s rapidly become a migratory highway similar to the trains winding through Mexico.
Crossings of the Darien Gap have shot up so much they could approach 500,000 people this year alone.
Villegas, whose family spent three days in Irapuato waiting for the train, was among many who saw the Darien Gap as an opportunity. The family was among 7.7 million people to leave Venezuela in recent years, and spent three years in neighboring Colombia.
The family was able to set up a small barbershop business on the fringes of the Colombia’s capital, but rising xenophobia and low pay left the family of eight struggling to scrape by.
This summer, when a gang threatened them for not paying extortion money, Villegas and her partner, 32-year-old Yorver Liendo, decided it was time to go to the U.S. For them, the dangers are worth it if it means a change for their children, who ate yogurt out of plastic bottles and snuggled together on the ground.
“It’s the country of a thousand opportunities, and at least my kids are still small. They can keep studying, and have a better quality of life,” Liendo said.
But it’s not just Ferromex that has been overwhelmed by the crush of people. Regional governments have also struggled with what to do.
Colombia, which has taken on the brunt of the exodus from Venezuela, has long called on the international community for aid. Panama and Costa Rica, meanwhile, have tightened migratory restrictions and demanded that something be done about hundreds of thousands of people passing through the Darien Gap.
Panama even launched a campaign dubbed “Darien is a jungle, not a highway.”
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has pushed Mexico and Central American nations to control migratory flows and now requires asylum seekers to register through an app known as CBP One.
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced it would grant temporary protected status to nearly a half million more Venezuelans already in the country.
Meanwhile, activists like Ponce say they expect migration along the train line to grow.
As bleary-eyed migrants climbed onto the train early Saturday morning, they cheered as the train picked up speed and continued them on their winding route north.
B.C. premier suspects Ottawa holding back information about foreign interference
A flock of birds flies past as Moninder Singh, front right, a spokesperson for the British Columbia Gurdwaras Council (BCGC), waits to speak to reporters outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara Sahib in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, September 18, 2023, where temple president Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down in his vehicle while leaving the temple parking lot in June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
British Columbia Premier David Eby said he “strongly” suspects that the federal government is holding back information that could help the province protect its residents who have connections to India from foreign interference.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc has reached out, saying Ottawa wants to make sure the provincial government has the details it needs to keep B.C. residents safe, “but there has not been good information sharing,” the premier said Friday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed in Parliament on Monday that Canadian intelligence services were investigating “a potential link” between the Indian government and the fatal shooting of Sikh advocate Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June.
In response to the killing, Eby said on Friday that the priority should be protecting the criminal prosecution process so people can be held accountable for the killing.
But on the broader issue of ensuring community safety, he said there’s “a long way to go to share that information.”
Eby said people in B.C. have been “feeling pressure from India,” and he believes Ottawa has information through agencies including the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that could help respond to foreign interference.
The premier’s initial statement in response to Trudeau’s announcement called on Ottawa to “share all relevant information” related not only to foreign interference, but also to “transnational organized crime threats” in the province.
He said Friday that the prime minister had reached out before telling Parliament about the probe based on “credible” information about the potential link between India and Nijjar’s killing.
Eby accepted Trudeau’s offer for a briefing by CSIS, but everything the premier knows about the situation is “in the public realm,” he said.
“I expressed my frustration in the meeting with the CSIS director about our inability to get more concrete information,” Eby said.
He made the remarks during a media question-and-answer session after addressing local politicians at the Union of BC Municipalities conference.
Eby said he understands there may need to be reform around the law governing CSIS in order for the agency to share the kind of information he’s looking for.
“If that’s what’s required, let’s make it happen, because the only way that we’re going to make traction on this is by the federal government trusting the provincial government with information and being able to act on it in our local communities,” he said.
Nijjar was a prominent supporter of the Khalistan separatism movement that advocates for a Sikh homeland in India’s Punjab province. He had been working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing.
India designated Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020, an accusation he had denied.
Canada and India expelled each other’s diplomats in the fallout of Trudeau’s announcement, and India has halted visa services in Canada.
India’s government has denied the accusation as “absurd and motivated.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2023.
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