Tropical Storm Isaac weakened slightly as it dumped heavy rain off Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Thursday but it was expected to strengthen into a hurricane before tearing across the Dominican Republic and Haiti, U.S. forecasters said.
All Isaac needs to do is come close to Tampa to bring a lot of problems to the Republican National Convention. Even during an average summer thunderstorm in this area, major roads can flood.
Authorities have not ruled out the possibility of postponing or relocating the RNC convention, if the storm takes direct aim at the city on Florida's central Gulf Coast. But Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the convention was not one of his biggest concerns, at least for now.
"People are spending a lot of time talking about that," Fugate said of the convention.
"I wish they'd be talking about making sure people in the (Florida) Keys are getting ready and that people in southwest Florida are getting ready," he told CNN.
When a tropical storm raked the Tampa Bay area a couple of months ago, thousands of homes and businesses lost power, tornadoes spun off and streets and bridges were closed. It's still too early to say where Isaac will end up, but officials are closely watching the storm and say they're ready to make any decisions, if needed, about evacuations or cancellations as 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters descend on the city.
"Public safety will always trump politics," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "And so my job, and our job, if we move into that mode, is to make sure we get people out of harm's way. I don't care whether they're anarchists or they're delegates."
Isaac was centered about 225 miles (410 km) south-southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday morning and moving westward at 13 miles (21 km) per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
The storm's top sustained winds had dropped to 40 miles per hour (65 kph) but the Miami-based hurricane center said re-strengthening was forecast over the next 48 hours.
"Isaac could become a hurricane on Friday before it reaches Hispaniola," the center said.
Hispaniola is the island shared by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the latter of which is highly prone to flooding due to deforestation and mountainous terrain.
The hurricane center said Isaac was expected to dump between eight and 12 inches of rain over some parts of Hispaniola, with total accumulations up to 20 inches in some areas.
"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," it warned in an advisory.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, also still has hundreds of thousands of people living in tents or makeshift shelters more than 2-1/2 years after a devastating earthquake that took more than a quarter of a million lives.
Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan McGrain said there was no consternation or concern from any of the delegates or guests prepared to head south. After all, he said Nebraskans are used to dealing with severe weather and tornadoes every spring.
"We can deal with extremes of every kind. I'm sure most of us would welcome a tropical storm as a new experience," McGrain said. "We're ready to ride it out."
Still, officials had to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, a hurricane in the Gulf, making landfall just north of Tampa, pushing even more water and wind into the Tampa Bay area, said Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist from AccuWeather. Because a storm can often affect areas 100 miles from its center, people were told to pay attention.
The city's geography has posed logistical challenges from the outset, including how people would get around a downtown that is only about 571 acres — or less than 1 square-mile — and is bordered by interstates and rivers, and punctuated with restaurants, cafes and offices. As many as 400 air-conditioned buses are expected to shuttle delegates and other visitors from their hotels on both sides of the bay to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the downtown hockey arena hosting the festivities.
Any evacuation orders for the arena, where Romney will give his acceptance speech, would depend on a variety of factors, and would most likely not be made simply because a Category 1 storm, with winds of 74 mph, was approaching, officials said. Some visitors may not even be staying in would-be evacuation zones. Hotels have been booked 20 miles or more from downtown Tampa.
Debra Sue Warshefski, spokeswoman for Tampa Fire Rescue, said the city will provide buses for people to get to shelters and she hoped protesters, especially those who are camping, would take advantage of any offers of help.
"If we call for an evacuation, are we going to require an evacuation and arrest them? No we're going to offer the opportunity for their safety," she said.
The last hurricane to strike Tampa was Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. The Category 1 storm moved across the state toward Tampa, weakening along the way. It still knocked down trees and power lines, and damaged buildings. Three people were killed, but none in the Tampa Bay area.
Director of meteorology at Weather Underground, Jeff Masters, said based off the latest forecasts and computer models, there was a 3 percent chance of needing to evacuate the arena hosting the convention. There was 9 percent chance of Tampa experiencing tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph when the convention begins.
"Those odds are probably going to rise," he said.
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