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Isaac expected to become hurricane in gulf, hurling high wind and surge into Tampa Bay

This is the day.

A thousand miles and one week ago, this storm was a meandering blob of moisture. It soon spun into a tropical wave, then a depression, then a storm with a name: Isaac.

When most of Tampa Bay went to bed Saturday, the storm's cone of uncertainty was still quite uncertain. Isaac, skipping along the north coast of Cuba at 20 mph, had become a disorganized mess and forecasters were far from confident on its ultimate destination.

By today, though, they expected it to find open water, form into a hurricane and finally pick a path.

Only a few models predicted Isaac would cross over the Florida peninsula and hit Tampa Bay head-on. Most indicated the storm would remain well offshore until it made landfall near the Panhandle, likely as a Category 2 hurricane. Regardless, experts said, the Tampa Bay area will almost certainly be struck late today with driving rain and winds of 39 to 73 mph.

Why? Because Isaac is big. Really big.

Tropical storm conditions will extend more than 200 miles from its center.

Those forces could ultimately shut down the bridges that connect Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Officials will close the Sunshine Skyway if sustained winds hit 40 mph. The Courtney Campbell, Howard Frankland and Gandy bridges are less likely to be affected by wind, though high surf could disrupt their use if water washes over the roadway.

Two months ago, when Tropical Storm Debby parked off Florida's west coast, both the Courtney Campbell and Howard Frankland had to be closed. Isaac may be moving too quickly to cause those issues.

"What we hope is that if it comes through, it comes through quickly and it doesn't hover out there," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "When it hovers, that counter-clockwise motion pushes a lot more water up in the bay. If it moves quickly, then that's much less of a problem."

Tampa Bay, under a tropical storm watch throughout Saturday, could be drenched by 4 to 8 inches of rain and up to 12 inches in some locations, according to the National Hurricane Center. Those estimates are less than what Debby dropped here, at least in part because the June storm remained stalled off the coast for several days.

Along the state's southwest coast, Isaac's storm surge was expected to reach 5 to 7 feet. Debby's surge was about half that in most areas. Here, experts predicted, it could reach 3 to 5 feet.

Buckhorn acknowledged that much of the area doesn't need anything more than heavy rain for roads to flood.

"Low-lying areas in the Tampa Bay area will probably have standing water regardless," he said. "I don't anticipate any tidal surge in the vicinity of downtown Tampa around the convention center."

Elsewhere in Tampa Bay on Saturday, officials were in wait-and-see mode. No counties had issued evacuation orders, and no schools had canceled classes. All of those decisions were scheduled to be made today.

Tampa International Airport reported three flight cancellations Saturday as a result of the storm. Two of the three were from Key West and Miami.

As is typical ahead of major storms, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency Saturday morning.

In Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando, county leaders warned residents of potential dangers, implored them to be prepared and, in some places, established locations to pick up sandbags.

Still, most people here didn't seem too concerned.

"I've already got my stuff," said James Parham, 49, a truck driver and Tampa native. "I'm not really worried because I've been through so many storms before."

Parham went shopping at Walmart on N Dale Mabry Highway Saturday afternoon just to grab things needed around the house.

He was one of dozens who walked by, but didn't seem to notice, a fully stocked display of water bottles.

Jr. Miller, 41, owner of Mermaids restaurant and bar in Tampa, was among the few with a cart full of provisions.

"I bought a ton of water, food that you don't have to refrigerate and Santa Maria candles because they burn the longest," Miller said. "I was surprised that they even had any water left."

And what about all those out-of-towners who planned to sleep outside between protests at the Republican National Convention?

One of the newest citizens of Romneyville, a homeless encampment turned into an activist statement on N Tampa Street and E Fortune Street, said he would stick out the rain until his car started to float away.

"If it gets to be unsafe, I'll go to the people I came with and suggest we move along," said Lucas Thayer, 26, a lobbyist from California who may eventually relocate to a nearby overpass.

"I came a really long way," he said. "We don't have any money for a hotel room."

Leadership at the camp said they have discussed contingency plans to deal with the 50 residents should Isaac threaten their safety.

"If the mandatory evacuation order comes, we're going to march down to the Convention Center and demand them to let us in," said John Penley, 60, an activist with Occupy Wall Street. "If they let us in, then Romneyville will be inside the Republican National Convention."

If the marchers are not allowed inside, Penley vowed they would stand outside indefinitely.

Tara Colón, 36, a co-founder of the Poor People's Economic Rights Campaign in Philadelphia, came to town with her five children, ages 11 months to 16 years.

She planned to sleep in a U-Haul truck if the weather got really serious.

"I'm not afraid of a little rain. We'll be in the tents," she said. "If the Republicans didn't scare me away, why would a hurricane?"

Staff writers Dan Sullivan, Richard Danielson, Bill Varian, Jeffrey Solochek and Marissa Lang contributed to this report.

Sandbags available

St. Petersburg: Frank W. Pierce Recreation Center, 2000 Seventh St. S; Mangrove Bay Golf Course, 875 62nd Ave. NE.

Tampa: Himes Sports Complex, 4500 S Himes Ave.; Jackson Heights Playground, 3310 E Lake Ave.; solid waste facility, 4010 W Spruce St.

Pinellas County: No longer offers sandbags.

Hillsborough County: Public works sites at 9805 Sheldon Road, 8718 Old Big Bend Road and 4702 Sydney Road.

Belleair Beach: Bayside Park behind City Hall.

Clearwater: Public Utilities, 1650 N Arcturas Ave.

Dunedin: Dunedin Fine Art Center, 1143 Michigan Blvd.

Gulfport: City Hall, 2401 53rd St. S.

Madeira Beach: Archibald Park, 15100 Gulf Blvd.; South Beach parking lot.

Oldsmar: City Hall, 100 State St. W.

Pinellas Park: Adamek Building, 7700 60th St. N.

St. Pete Beach: Egan Park, 9101 Blind Pass Road; Lido Park, 4503 Gulf Blvd.

Tarpon Springs: City parking lot (east of Pinellas Ave.).

Pasco County: West Pasco Government Center, 7536 State St., New Port Richey; Fire Station 10, 7918 Rhodes Road, Hudson; Fire Station 17, 2952 Seven Springs Road, New Port Richey; Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, 3032 Collier Parkway, Land O'Lakes; C-Barn county fleet building, 30906 Warder Road, San Antonio; Jack Mitchell Park, 4025 Little Road, New Port Richey.

Hernando County: Ridge Manor Community Center, 34240 Cortez Blvd.; Spring Hill Fire Rescue stations at 1479 Parker Ave. and 3445 Bob Hartung Court; Brooksville Fire Department, 60 Veterans Ave.

Isaac expected to become hurricane in gulf, hurling high wind and surge into Tampa Bay 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, August 25, 2012 10:58pm]

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