CHICAGO (WLS) -- More than 2.5 million people along the Gulf Coast have been told to evacuate as Hurricane Ian approaches, and some of them have fled to Chicago to wait out the storm.
The Tampa Bay airport and several other airports in Florida have shut down ahead of landfall. Waukegan couple Anthony Rodriguez and Elizabeth Castro caught one of the last flights back.
They had been Florida for a wedding and found themselves unsure if they'd be able to get back after staff from their hotel approached them Monday night.
"They're like, 'Hey we just want you guys to know there is an evacuation notice. You guys can get your stuff out, leave as soon as you can,' and we were like, 'Got it, yes,'" Castro said.
"They hired people to bring out all the beds to bring into the second floor so that the water doesn't splash because we're by the beach side," Rodriguez said.
Then they found out the Tampa airport was suspending operations.
"We would go to the boards and see canceled, canceled, canceled," said Rodriguez. "Then we found out that our flight was basically the very last one before the cut off for when they all started getting canceled so I was like, 'thank goodness we can leave.'"
They wee lucky. Rodriguez and Castro's friends who were in Florida with them weren't able to make the last flight back. Now they've had to move further inland while they try to figure out how to get home.
Jada Huddleston is an Illinois native who has been living in St. Petersburg for the past two years. Upon being given the evacuation order, she immediately gathered some necessities and drove 45 minutes inland.
"I decided last night I would rather be safe than sorry and get everything packed up and sit in traffic before things start," she said.
Huddleston said she's worried about what she will come back to. Ed and Ursula Carroll are worried about the same thing. The Chicago couple has a home outside of Tampa, and would have left today to spend the winter there. But they're staying put for now.
Now all they can do is check with their neighbors and watch the weather report.
"The forecast can change an hour or two before the hit," Carroll said.
Bill Fox just returned from Tampa, where he caught the Packers v. Buccaneers game and visited family. He flew out hours before Tampa's airport was scheduled to close, but his relatives have no plans to leave.
"They're on relatively high ground for Florida, so they don't need to worry much about the surge," he said.
Dennis Weil prepped his house for the hurricane before flying in to visit friends. The trip had already been planned; it's good timing for getting out of town and Weil, who used to live in Chicago, is taking the hurricane in stride.
"We deal with tornados up here, microbursts. We went through hailstorms, you name it. Winter blizzards. This isn't so bad," he said.
Tropical storm-force winds were expected across the southern peninsula late Tuesday, reaching hurricane-force Wednesday - when the eye was predicted to make landfall. With tropical storm-force winds extending 140 miles (225 kilometers) from Ian's center, damage was expected across a wide area of Florida.
It was not yet clear precisely where Ian would crash ashore. Its exact track could determine how severe the storm surge is for Tampa Bay, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. Landfall south of the bay could make the impact "much less bad," McNoldy said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis urged people to prepare for extended power outages, and to get out of the storm's potential path.
"It is a big storm, it is going to kick up a lot of water as it comes in," DeSantis told a news conference in Sarasota, a coastal city of 57,000 that could be hit. "And you're going to end up with really significant storm surge and you're going to end up with really significant flood events. And this is the kind of storm surge that is life threatening."
He said about 30,000 utility works have already been positioned around the state but it might take days before they can safely reach some of the downed power lines.
"This thing's the real deal," DeSantis said. "It is a major, major storm."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.