TAMPA — As Tampa Bay residents and wary Republican conventioneers braced Sunday for an onslaught from Tropical Storm Isaac, the oddly inscrutable storm was headed farther west than first predicted, suggesting the thousands of politicos and protesters gathered here could be spared a lasting bout of severe weather.
Emergency shelters opened as a precaution in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and public schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties were scheduled to close today — echoing the Republican National Committee's choice Saturday to cancel the first day of the GOP convention in Tampa.
Weather forecasters, however, said Isaac's potential for damaging the Tampa Bay area was diminishing, with the sprawling storm now expected to be hundreds of miles offshore when it reaches this latitude. The storm track's westward shift put the northern Gulf Coast, and potentially New Orleans, in Isaac's crosshairs.
The worst conditions here were anticipated to arrive this morning, then rapidly fade. This region could still be in for rain and high-speed winds that might cause flooding and complicate travel on the bridges that connect the bay area.
Isaac was a dissipated weather formation, a trait that prevented the storm from focusing its strength — but also caused it to cut a wide swath.
Tropical storm-force winds could be felt more than 200 miles away from the storm's center, including in Tampa Bay, according to the National Hurricane Center. After weeks of steady rainfall, even a small excess of water carries the risk of flooding.
"It looks like the center of Isaac will stay far enough offshore to avoid any hurricane impacts," said Bay News 9 meteorologist Josh Linker, adding, "there could still be flooding, because the ground is so saturated."
After passing through the Straits of Florida on Sunday, Isaac moved over the Florida Keys and veered into the Gulf of Mexico. It was predicted to make landfall as a Category 1 or 2 hurricane late Tuesday or early Wednesday somewhere on the stretch of shore between eastern Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, a danger zone that includes New Orleans. Wednesday is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the disastrous 2005 storm that left more 1,800 dead in five states.
At 11 p.m. Sunday, the center of Isaac was about 75 miles west of Key West, moving west-northwest at 14 mph. It was expected to be closest to Tampa Bay sometime early today, said Mike Clay, chief meteorologist for Bay News 9.
The area could see wind and rain similar to what accompanied Tropical Storm Debby in June. The National Weather Service predicted winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of up to 55 mph Sunday night and today. Officials will close the Sunshine Skyway bridge if sustained winds hit 40 mph.
Tampa Bay will see 2 to 4 inches of rain Sunday night and today, according to the National Weather Service. A 2- to 4-foot rise in water levels was also anticipated because of the combined storm and high tide, adding to the risk of flooding in low-lying waterfront neighborhoods, the hurricane center said.
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The good news for the bay area: Unlike Debby, which brooded over the Gulf Coast for days and caused severe flooding, Isaac will quickly continue its path.
Despite downgraded estimates of the storm's impact on Sunday, local officials and residents were busy preparing for its approach.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties declared a state of emergency, opening shelters for those affected by flooding. Most scheduled proceedings in Pinellas and Pasco courts were canceled for today. Pasco ordered its government offices closed, but Hernando's will be open.
In Hillsborough, county government offices including the tax collector and supervisor of elections agencies were closed. Hillsborough jail inmates volunteered to fill sandbags, and by Sunday morning had made about 2,800.
Such precautionary zeal wasn't the norm everywhere.
On Pinellas beaches, hammered during Tropical Storm Debby and now swarming with Republican delegates packed into waterfront hotels, an attitude of unconcern reigned. Beneath an overcast sky and drizzle, visitors mostly stayed off the celebrated white-sand beaches.
"I'm not worried at all, because it doesn't seem like a bad one," Kentucky GOP delegate Laura LaRue said over brunch Sunday at the Wyndham Garden Hotel on Clearwater Beach. "I don't want to take anything lightly, but it's rain. We're going to be indoors anyway" at the convention, she said.
Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said the bridges connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — and affording access to Tampa for the many GOP delegates staying on the Pinellas shoreline — would close only if water from the bay washed into the roadways.
He said "numerous troopers" already stationed at the bridges because of convention-related security concerns were keeping an eye out for flooding.
A tropical storm warning — meaning winds from 39 to 73 mph are expected within 36 hours, often accompanied by intense rain — was in effect for the west coast of Florida south of Anclote Key, near the Pinellas-Pasco county line. A similar warning put out early Sunday for Pasco and Hernando counties was canceled in the afternoon.
A hurricane warning was issued for the Panhandle west of Destin, as well as the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. A hurricane watch — a lesser form of alert than a warning — was in effect between Destin and Indian Pass, southwest of Tallahassee.
At news briefings Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott said he was particularly concerned about flooding in the storm-saturated Panhandle, to which Debby brought extensive damage. He advised visitors to the Republican National Convention staying in Pinellas County to avoid crossing bridges into Hillsborough County in storm conditions.
"Everybody needs to continue to be cautious," he said.
He said the revised storm forecast was "good news for Florida but not for Mississippi."
Should the storm bring serious damage to neighboring Gulf Coast states later in the week, Scott said, Florida would "direct resources to other states" to help.
"We in Florida know how to deal with hurricanes," Scott said.
Times staff writers Will Hobson, Marlene Sokol, Keyonna Summers and Danny Valentine, and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.