Updated September 26, 2022 at 3:06 PM ET

Hurricane Ian is projected to bring a perilous storm surge and winds as strong as 140 mph when it nears Florida's Gulf Coast in the middle of this week, the National Hurricane Center said on Monday.

Ian had maximum sustained winds of 85 mph as of 2 p.m. ET Monday — but it will rapidly intensify into a major storm, developing wind speeds over 110 mph as it moves toward western Cuba, forecasters say.

As it hits Cuba, Ian's storm surge "could raise water levels by as much as 9 to 14 feet above normal tide levels" in some areas, the hurricane center said. The surge is predicted to be slightly less severe in Florida, but parts of Tampa Bay could still see waters 5 to 10 feet higher than normal.

Ian is currently around 120 miles west-northwest of Grand Cayman, moving northwest at 13 mph, the NHC said in its 2 p.m advisory. Over the next 48 hours, the storm is expected to shift course toward the north and northeast — and the timing of those moves will likely determine where it makes landfall on the U.S. mainland.

Ian sets off alarms after a quiet summer

A hurricane warning — meaning dangerous conditions are imminent — is in effect for western Cuba. In the U.S., roughly 100 miles of the Florida coast is under a hurricane watch, from Englewood north to the Anclote River — a stretch that includes Tampa, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg. A hurricane watch is normally issued 48 hours before storm conditions arrive.

Ian is the fourth Atlantic hurricane of 2022, a season that only saw its first hurricane earlier this month. So far, predictions of above-average activity in the 2022 hurricane season haven't come to pass — a circumstance explained by fluctuations in the jet stream and heat waves in northern latitudes.

But Ian's menacing approach is a reminder of a warning that hurricane experts often invoke: A single bad storm is enough to upend people's lives.

"It only takes one land-falling hurricane to make it a bad season for you," Jamie Rhome, the NHC's acting director, told NPR earlier this month.

Both President Biden and Gov. Ron DeSantis have declared emergencies in Florida, easing the way for federal and state agencies to coordinate their planning and response.

People in Florida are tracking the storm closely

Along the coast of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, all eyes are on forecasts that model Ian's potential path. But experts urge everyone in the region to have an emergency plan in place, even if the latest track doesn't show the storm making landfall in their area.

Predictions currently call for the storm to remain off of Florida's western coast as it moves north toward the Panhandle. But it will drop heavy rain along the way — up to 15 inches in local areas, and 8-10 inches in central western Florida overall.

In areas along the coast, the deepest waters are expected to strike on the storm's right-hand side, due to the double-whammy of the storm surge and waves whipped by strong winds.

"Regardless of Ian's exact track and intensity, there is a risk of a life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds, and heavy rainfall along the west coast of Florida and the Florida Panhandle by the middle of this week," the NHC said on Monday.

Grocery shoppers in the storm's predicted path are stocking up on water, batteries and other supplies. Some shelves were reportedly bare in northern Florida, but in the Tampa area, residents were more relaxed, hoping the storm will steer clear of them.

"It's trending west," a shopper at a Winn-Dixie store in Sarasota told member station WUSF on Sunday. "We have looked at the models and only a few of them look like they are going to impact us, everything else says it is going to be the Panhandle."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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