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TAMPA, Sept 26 (Reuters) – Residents across Florida rushed to place sandbags around their homes and stockpile emergency supplies on Monday, emptying store shelves as Hurricane Ian headed in towards the state, bringing high winds, torrential rains and a powerful storm surge.

Ian’s journey to Florida has forced the US space agency NASA to lift its giant Artemis 1 moon rocket from its Cape Canaveral lauchpad after postponing the highly anticipated mission for a third time.

Ian was a Category 1 hurricane on Monday afternoon and is expected to intensify before making landfall in Cuba in the evening. Forecasters said that once Ian leaves Cuba, the storm could make landfall north of Tampa Bay early Friday or track northwest toward Florida’s Panhandle.

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“It’s a really big storm,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told a news conference, saying the storm could potentially envelope both coasts of the state.

Florida has seen wetter, windier, and more intense hurricanes in recent years due to climate change. There is also evidence that climate change slows the spread of storms, which means they can dump more water in one place.

Signs of the impending storm were seen across Florida, a state of 21 million. In Titusville, a town of 43,000 on the Atlantic coast, crews used chainsaws to prune palm trees.

At a grocery store in St. Petersburg, across the state on the Gulf Coast, there were only empty boxes left where the store normally stocks distilled water. Toilet paper, canned snacks and soup could still be found.

In Tampa’s historic district of Ybor City, northeast of downtown, Diane Zambito, 64, said she was not normally buffeted by hurricanes that battered the state.

“But this one is different,” she said Monday afternoon as her husband nailed plywood to the windows of their home. “This one scares me. It’s too big not to scare if you have any common sense.”

The couple planned to shovel sand into bags and pile them in front of the doors to prevent water from flowing inside.

The Zambitos were among many Florida residents bracing for flooding that could overwhelm streets and homes. Hurricane strength could damage or destroy homes and businesses and trigger power outages in the coming days, forecasters warn.

The governor has mobilized 5,000 National Guard members while another 2,000 come from Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, with other neighboring states having troops on standby.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston said her island town could be one of the first places in the United States affected by Hurricane Ian.

Johnston said landlords and vacation rentals nailed shutters or storm boards to windows as residents stocked up on enough food and water to last a week.

The city has even cut the coconuts from the coconut trees that are on some streets, she said, explaining, “A coconut can become a 30-pound projectile during a storm.”

City vehicles were moved to higher ground and residents living on boats were told to seek shelter on land before storm squalls began battering the city on Monday evening. Forecasters predicted a 4ft (1.2m) storm surge that could push seawater on shore into the streets.

“If there is an evacuation, I will be the one ordering it,” Johnston said. “We’ll think about it if the storm swings to the east.”

The intensifying storm was about 100 miles (160 km) southwest of Grand Cayman on Monday morning with sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (128 km per hour).

BP Plc (BP.L) halted oil production at two platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Ian could intensify into a Category 3 storm once it enters the Gulf of Mexico, forecasters say, but weaken again while stationed off Tampa on Florida’s Gulf Coast Thursday. From there, the path of the storm is more uncertain.

Either way, between 6 and 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) of rain is expected to flood Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts on Thursday, said Bob Oravec, meteorologist with the National Weather Forecasting Center. Wake at College Park, Maryland.

Ian follows Hurricane Fiona, a powerful Category 4 storm that carved a path of destruction through Puerto Rico last week, leaving most of the United States without power and clean water. Fiona then crossed the Turks and Caicos Islands, skirted Bermuda and slammed into Canada’s Atlantic coast, where critical infrastructure could take months to repair.

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Reporting by Shannon Stapleton in Tampa and Brendan O’Brien in Washington; Additional reporting by Tyler Clifford in Washington, Rich McKay in Atlanta and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker

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