Tropical Storm Isaac could threaten Tampa Bay by Monday

Published Aug. 23, 2012

Tropical Storm Isaac, looking more menacing by the hour, is expected to become a hurricane today and continue on a path that has Florida emergency managers preparing for trouble.

Forecasters expect Isaac to continue west and plow into the mountains of the Dominican Republic and possibly Cuba, some with peaks of up to 10,000 feet, perhaps significantly weakening the storm before it returns to open water and heads toward Florida.

The track was still uncertain enough that forecasters said the islands may have little effect on Isaac's strength, size or speed.

If the storm does head this way, forecasters said, it would likely hit the Tampa Bay area on Monday, when more than 50,000 visitors are expected to pack the region for the Republican National Convention.

"The good thing is we've been poised and ready to go for this event for such a long time, and we've always had this as a scenario during the event," said Hillsborough County Emergency Management director Preston Cook. "Just because we're hosting the RNC doesn't mean everything changes. Nothing changes. Be ready."

Computer models Wednesday remained at odds.

Some showed Isaac skirting Florida to the east, others had it heading up Florida's west coast, and one showed it veering into the Gulf of Mexico and tracking toward Louisiana or Texas. The 11 p.m. Wednesday update from the National Hurricane Center had Isaac just southwest of Tampa Bay by Monday night.

Still being steered by an Atlantic high pressure ridge to its north Wednesday, Isaac was expected to hit Hispaniola and Cuba at 20 mph before turning north into warm waters south of Florida by the end of the week.

Usually, this area is ideal for hurricane development. But depending on how Isaac fares over the Caribbean's mountain ranges, it may be too weak to pose a threat.

"If the system is incredibly disorganized, it might not have a chance to regroup," said David Zelinsky of the National Hurricane Center.

No matter what happens, officials said, they're prepared.

More than three months ago, Florida emergency management officials ran a drill on how to respond if a hurricane hit the convention. They tossed around hypothetical questions that now verge on becoming real.

How strong would a storm have to be to force the convention to reschedule? What if it hit elsewhere in Florida, limiting available resources? And who would make the final call?

"We have daily conference calls with everyone — local, state, federal agencies, convention stakeholders," said Bryan Koon, the state's chief of emergency management. "We need everyone to understand, there is a dangerous storm out there."

Koon noted all emergency response for the storm would be handled on a local level, regardless of what federal agencies are in town for the convention.

The decision to call off the convention rests with the Republican Party and the Secret Service, though any evacuations would be ordered by Hillsborough County and state emergency managers.

"The RNC is a small part of what's going on in the Tampa Bay area on any given day in the next two weeks," Koon said. "This could impact their event, but we're also trying to keep the safety of the other 1 million-plus residents at the forefront."

Emergency managers in Hillsborough and Pinellas said it would be business as usual, with their priority being residents.

"The fact is that the folks who are attending the RNC will be able to take care of themselves to some degree," Koon said. "Once they leave the area, they're done dealing with a hurricane. It's our residents who have their homes, their livelihood, everything here to stay."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a prepared statement Wednesday that, "as we know, storms this far from land are still unpredictable and everyone should be vigilant and prepared."

Residents and visitors were advised to join the city's Alert Tampa mass-messaging system, which sends emergency updates to cellphones, email addresses or land lines.

The convention is not sending advisories to delegates or other people coming into Tampa for the convention.

"We are monitoring the situation, but we are moving ahead as planned," convention press secretary Kyle Downey said.

Barry Scanlon, director of Washington-based crisis management consulting firm Witt Associates, noted the Tampa Bay area may not be hampered by the convention, but rather could benefit from its presence in the event of a storm.

"If something were to occur all the extra police and emergency responders and preparation will only help with dealing and managing a crisis situation," Scanlon said.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CNN's Early Start Wednesday that "politics will take second place" to public safety if a storm hits. Asked whether authorities would be prepared to call off the convention's proceedings if a storm threatened on a particular night, Buckhorn said, "Absolutely we're prepared to call it off."

News organizations nationwide pounced on the statement, and later Buckhorn said he didn't mean to suggest that the city would decide what happens with the convention. That's solely the decision of the RNC, he said.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Anna Phillips contributed to this report.