Tropical Storm Isaac's path shifts west, impact for RNC unknown
TAMPA - No matter the path it takes, Tropical Storm Isaac will hit Tampa with wind and rain during at least part of the Republican National Convention, forecasters said — likely late Monday and Tuesday. Gusty winds and rain bands are expected to swoop through the area Monday night, bringing the possibility of isolated tornadoes, said Todd Barron of the National Weather Service. "It's going to affect us one way or another," Barron said. How badly Isaac lashes Tampa may be determined around 8 a.m. Sunday, when the storm is expected to hover over central Cuba, then take a turn north toward the Florida Straits."Cuba is the turning point," said Len Ciecieznski, spokesman for Pinellas County's emergency services. No one is watching the storm more closely than organizers and businesses who have a stake in the Republican National Convention, which kicks off Monday and runs through Thursday. Convention CEO William Harris said in a statement there are no plans to cancel or shorten the convention, saying Florida officials have ensured organizers the state has enough resources to respond to the storm should it make landfall. "We continue to move forward with our planning and look forward to a successful convention," Harris said. Those who put up all the big white convention party tents downtown are watching closely, too, but making plans to yank skins from steel frames — at least temporarily. Crews with Orlando-based Karl's Event Services would wait until the storm is two days out to begin dismantling their tents, said Jim Koza, vice president for marketing. That could mean Saturday or Sunday, according to the latest predictions for the storm's path. "Our goal would be to have all the vinyl removed within 24 hours, which would put us 24 hours ahead of the storm," he said. Should Isaac shift west, away from Florida, the nearly 100,000 square feet of tenting — all rated to withstand winds up to a certain speed — may stay up if conditions aren't too severe. Early Friday, Isaac was centered about 165 miles south of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and had maximum sustained winds of 45 mph. It was moving west near 15 mph, according to the hurricane center. Isaac is expected to track northwest into the Gulf of Mexico by 2 p.m. Monday, where it is expected to become a Category 1 hurricane. On Thursday, the storm had weakened as it approached the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. "At this point, the storm appears ragged," said News Channel 8 meteorologist Megan Hatton. "It's not organized at all." Hatton said Isaac will hit the mountainous regions of Haiti and Cuba in the next two days, where "it will rip apart." "But once it enters the Florida Straits, it could intensify," she said. "Monday is the day to watch. The models show it continues to shift to the west, but we're still not in the clear." If the center of Isaac stays to the west of Tampa, that means the eastern edge of the storm — which packs more circulation and punch — will send high winds and "pretty hefty rainfall totals" our way, Hatton said. But the storm shouldn't linger long. "It's moving at 20 mph, which is pretty quick for a tropical storm," Hatton said. "We'll have rain Monday and Tuesday and may see improvement by Wednesday." For now, emergency management officials in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are watching Isaac and monitoring its path. The county has made sandbags available at three county public works buildings — not because of the threat of Isaac, but because of recent afternoon thunderstorms that have saturated the ground and local rivers, Wade said. "We've been getting a lot of rain lately, about 5 or 6 inches over the last few days," said Dan Noah of the weather service. "That rainfall is going to lead to some overland flooding and river flooding." 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. Pinellas issued no emergency alerts Thursday. "We keep monitoring the storm," Ciecieznski said. "Right now, it's an unknown. That's five days away and anything can happen." Sarasota County officials are considering declaring a local state of emergency, a proactive measure that will allow the county to receive emergency funds from the state should the storm wreak havoc. On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said the state has begun emergency preparations for Isaac, as it does for all tropical cyclones, by setting its emergency operations center at Level 2. This allows officials to mobilize resources and get residents ready for the storm. Scott said the state is already working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring supplies, such as meals and generators, to Florida ahead of the storm. On Thursday, the American Red Cross activated its emergency plans by placing 22 response vehicles in Florida on standby, with 28 more arriving by the weekend and five truckloads of disaster supplies ready to go, said Charley Shimanski of Red Cross Disaster Services. For delegates coming from the hurricane-free Midwest, a looming hurricane is just one more way to have the full Florida experience while they're here. "Some people who have never been near a tropical storm, obviously, are a little bit hesitant," said Jack Hamilton, a first-time delegate from Washington state. "But nobody is thinking about not coming." Kerri Brehm of Colorado, a state know more for its snow than its rain, is making her own preparations before arriving in Tampa. Brehm said it was "a little bit frightening'' because she had never been through a hurricane. "But I've heard that these things threaten and then it ends up blowing a different direction or it peters out. So it could just be that we have a need for raincoats. I have to go buy a raincoat." A sampling of hotel managers in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties found no cancellations because of the storm. Some delegations — Oregon, Wisconsin and Illinois among them — have already started arriving. "We've had some called about emergency preparations," said Tom Shanahan, general manager of the Mainsail Suites Hotel and Conference Center near Tampa International Airport. "At this point, no one is too concerned about it." As least one delegation – from the U.S. Virgin Islands — may begin arriving on Saturday instead of Sunday to get ahead of the storm, said Pete Chenhall, front desk manager at the Crystal Palms Beach Resort, the delegation's hotel in Treasure Island. "It's a long way till the convention," said Russ Kimble, general manager of the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater. "It's a long way till Isaac's off our shores a bit."
Intern Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.