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Tampa 2012 GOP convention planners prepare for slight chance of hurricane

TAMPA — As he looks ahead to hosting next year's Republican National Convention, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is upbeat, but blunt.

"The only thing that could make our life miserable is a hurricane," he said last week.

That's possible, but not likely.

The chance of a hurricane hitting Tampa Bay the week of the convention are probably less than 1 percent, a National Hurricane Center scientist estimates.

Still, it's not zero. So Buckhorn vows Tampa will not be caught off-guard. There will be, he said, no Katrina-style chaos.

"I want to make sure we practice and practice and practice until we're ready," he said. "This is not New Orleans, and I am not Ray Nagin."

If a hurricane does hit the week of Aug. 27, 2012, city officials say the response will be well coordinated, drawing on resources from all over Florida. Contingency planning for the convention includes emergency management officials from as far away as Orange County.

For starters, the city's 40,000-plus visitors will be urged to sign up for the city's Alert Tampa mass-message system, which can send texts, voice mail and e-mail to mobile phones.

"With hurricanes, we feel pretty confident that we can get the word out early, at least 72 hours early," city emergency coordinator Chauncia Willis said.

If visitors were already in town, local officials could commandeer some of the 350 charter buses hired for the convention to carry them out of harm's way, likely far out of the Tampa Bay area.

Tampa previously has had buses on standby in case officials had to evacuate the Super Bowl or the parade route of the annual Gasparilla pirate invasion.

Tampa has hosted four Super Bowls, and Gasparilla draws hundreds of thousands of spectators, so officials say they constantly work on contingency plans for big events.

So does the Republican National Committee, though it's not talking yet about what it would do if a hurricane forced the evacuation of the waterfront area that will include the convention's main sites.

The Tampa Convention Center, which will serve as the convention's media center, and the Tampa Marriott Waterside are in evacuation Zone A, the first evacuated in any hurricane.

The St. Pete Times Forum, the convention site, and the Embassy Suites hotel are in Zone B, which is evacuated in hurricanes with winds of 96 to 110 mph.

"We try to plan every convention in meticulous detail," said Bill Harris, the convention's chief executive officer. "We always have plans to handle unexpected occurrences of various kinds, and we'll do the same this time."

The GOP's rules do allow the chairman of the convention to permit some roll call votes to be taken by telephone, computer or other electronic means.

In the most extreme cases, the rules say — if the convention "cannot convene or is unable to conduct its business" at its site or in the chosen city — then and only then do the rules allow an alternate method for the roll call votes to name the presidential and vice presidential nominees.

"We're still in the planning phases," said Ryan Tronovitch, the regional press secretary for the Republican National Committee. But there will, he said, be a hurricane contingency plan.

• • •

Most likely, it won't be needed.

"Usually, we either get systems early in the season or late in the season," Bay News 9 forecaster Mike Clay said, "but you could certainly have a surprise."

The last time a major hurricane hit Tampa Bay was 1921. The last time it took a direct hit from any hurricane was 1946, when a Category 1 storm came up through the bay.

"For a major hurricane, it's a rare event," said Chris Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

In August, most hurricanes move east to west. So Tampa Bay, on Florida's west coast, tends to be a "little shielded," he said.

Landsea puts the chances of a hurricane hitting the Tampa Bay area during August at about 2 to 3 percent.

For any given week in August, the chance may be one-half of 1 percent — or possibly up to 1 percent if 2012 is an especially busy hurricane season.

But an August hurricane would not be unprecedented.

On Aug. 13, 2004, Hurricane Charley was heading for Pinellas County on the western side of Tampa Bay when it turned abruptly and went ashore 110 miles south at Punta Gorda.

Charley's 145 mph winds killed 10 people in the United States and did nearly $15 billion in damage.

Charley's sharp right turn illustrates a key point: It's virtually impossible to pinpoint a few days out where a hurricane will come ashore.

"That, unfortunately, is the state of the art," Landsea said. "We can't precisely say exactly who's going to get hit a couple of days in advance. Our two-day forecasts have an average error of about 125 miles. So if our best estimate is that it's going to hit Tampa Bay, that could be all the way to Cedar Key or down to Naples or so."

What's more, Tampa Bay is "extremely vulnerable" to a direct hit, Landsea said. It has a big population, more than 2.5 million, but few residents have any experience with hurricanes.

If the eye of a hurricane went over Tarpon Springs on the west side of Tampa Bay, the counterclockwise winds could push a huge volume of water into the bay, creating a storm surge that could put some coastal areas under 20 feet of water.

"When Tampa Bay does get hit again — and, of course, it's not an if, it's when — it's going to be a massive impact," Landsea said. "My concern is when there's a major hurricane, there's going to be enough people that don't leave or can't leave that's there's going to be hundreds or even thousands dead."

• • •

With such scenarios in the background, the GOP passed on Tampa for its 2008 convention. At the time, a party official told a leading local booster that weather was the deciding factor in turning down Tampa's bid.

That was 2006, a little more than a year after Katrina hit New Orleans. But Tampa leaders suspected that the decision to go to St. Paul, Minn., was more political than meteorological.

Then a hurricane unsettled the 2008 convention anyway.

With Hurricane Gustav threatening the gulf coast, nominee John McCain and the GOP dialed down the first day's schedule.

"It's not that there was a threat to St. Paul," said Mike Miller, chief operating officer of the GOP's Committee on Arrangements. "It was just deference to what was happening in the rest of the country."

• • •

The only other time Florida has hosted a national political convention was 1972, when both parties came to Miami Beach.

News coverage suggests that preconvention hurricane planning received little attention.

In July 1972, the Baltimore Sun reported on some confused planning, with Democrats and Miami Beach officials fighting over 20 trailers at the convention site.

Only later did anyone wonder aloud whether the trailers should be strapped down in case of, you know, a hurricane.

"The way things have been around here," one official said then, "the Democrats wouldn't even notice a hurricane."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

. FAST FACTS

Early warning

City emergency management officials urge residents and visitors alike to sign up for the Alert Tampa mass-messaging system.

To register online, go to www.tampagov.net/alerttampa and click on "Sign up now online."

Tampa 2012 GOP convention planners prepare for slight chance of hurricane 06/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 13, 2011 5:52pm]

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