Published: August 25, 2012
Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:09 AM
Preparations for Tropical Storm Isaac ramped up Friday just as the city and GOP officials put the finishing touches on plans for the Republican National Convention.While county agencies made sandbags available, workers rolled out electronic signs in downtown Tampa welcoming visitors to the convention.And as residents were reminded to check their evacuation zones and to learn the best routes to flee a storm, city officials finalized plans for traffic around the convention's event zone.Agencies that already have devoted resources to bolstering convention security and emergency response did double-duty Friday, issuing alerts about the potential impact of Isaac.Hillsborough County emergency planners released this alert Friday on their website:"Though the models have come into better agreement and continue to keep Isaac well west of the Tampa Bay area, there is still a very high level of uncertainty … we all need to be prepared to react on possibly very short notice."Meanwhile, GOP officials said the convention will go on.There are no plans to shorten or cancel the event, which starts on Monday — the same day Isaac is expected to enter the Gulf of Mexico before its trek northward.Convention CEO William Harris said GOP officials continue to plan for the event and expect a successful convention. Gov. Rick Scott said that he has consulted with state, local and federal authorities and, "We're going to have a great convention. We'll be ready for it. We're used to this."But when delegates convene for the first time Monday, they could be greeted with periodic torrential downpours hurled from Isaac's outer bands."All day Monday and parts of Tuesday, we'll see bands of rain that are extremely heavy and strong winds," said News Channel 8 meteorologist Leigh Spann. "And embedded in those rain bands there's also a chance of isolated tornadoes."High winds and spurts of rain will start arriving Sunday night, she said. Coastal flooding Monday and Tuesday also is possible.Isaac still was classified as a tropical storm Friday as it approached Haiti. The storm lashed the country with 60 mph winds and dumped at least 8 inches of rain.Forecasters expect the storm to stay below hurricane force until it's in the Gulf of Mexico and to stay to the west of Tampa. On Friday, tropical force winds extended nearly 200 miles beyond the storm's center.Spann said Isaac likely will weaken as it passes over mountainous regions in Haiti and Cuba this weekend. But the storm could gain strength as it takes a turn north toward the Florida Straits. Isaac could be a Category 1 hurricane by Monday or Tuesday.While forecasters monitored the storm, county agencies took action. On Friday, Hillsborough and Pasco County made sandbags available and reminded residents to download online hurricane guides and evacuation maps.Hillsborough County school officials also will keep a close eye on Isaac this weekend and are ready to notify parents of storm-related scheduling changes.Parents will be alerted Sunday by an automated telephone system whether there will be school on Monday, said district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.Federal and state authorities began issuing warnings and advice on Friday. The U.S. Coast Guard, which will have vessels guarding the waters around Tampa during the convention, told owners now is the time to secure their boats as Isaac approaches, and to stay away from beaches because of possible strong waves and rip currents.The Coast Guard is ready to "simultaneously ensure the safety and security of the Republican National Convention and respond to urgent search and rescue operations" that could occur because of the storm, said Capt. Sheryl Dickinson."We recently conducted a full scale exercise for just this scenario," Dickinson said. "However, we need the boating public to help us by preparing for this storm and staying out of harm's way."The law enforcement arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission warned adventurous personal watercraft owners to stay on land early next week."Thrill seekers are advised to avoid the waters and high winds created from this storm," Capt. Tom Shipp said. "When people choose to act irresponsibly, they jeopardize others."The American Red Cross said it is sending 400 disaster-trained volunteers to Tampa. The volunteers will join an estimated 70,000 delegates, out-of-town visitors, media members and protesters and another 3,500 additional police officers who will be in town for the convention.