GOP has plans in place in case Isaac slams Tampa
Projected path of Tropical Storm Isaac as of August 22, 2012 / NOAA.gov
(CBS/AP) MIAMI -- Forecasters were casting a wary eye Wednesday on Tropical Storm Isaac, which was moving west in the Atlantic Ocean and posing a potential threat to Florida during next week's Republican National Convention in Tampa.
Isaac was getting better organized as it approached the Caribbean.
It's much too early to say with any certainty whether it will gain hurricane strength or make a beeline for Tampa, on Florida's west coast.
But it's the type of weather that convention organizers knew was a possibility during the peak of hurricane season and they have backup plans in place for a worst-case scenario.
It's been 90 years since a major hurricane made a direct hit on Tampa. The last to strike Florida's west coast was Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 packing 150 mph winds. The Aug. 13, 2004, storm was small, yet powerful and was initially forecast to strike the Tampa Bay area before it turned and slammed Port Charlotte, about 100 miles south.
Isaac's maximum sustained winds early Wednesday were near 45 mph.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Isaac was expected to strengthen and could become a hurricane by Thursday.
Tropical storm warnings were in effect Wednesday for Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and a swath of islands across the Caribbean including Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Anguilla, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, Culebra and Vieques.
Isaac was centered about 280 miles east of Guadeloupe and moving west at nearly 18 mph. The storm's center was expected to move over the Leeward Islands Wednesday evening.
To become a hurricane, Isaac would have to have maximum winds of at least 74 mph.
Some Hurricane Center computer models had the storm striking Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, after moving across Cuba or the Bahamas as early as Sunday morning.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weatherunderground.com, said long-range storm track predictions five days in advance are notoriously inaccurate, often off an average of 260 miles. But Masters said the climate situation has improved chances that Florida could be in the system's sights during the GOP event that runs Monday through Thursday.
"It would take a perfect storm of a scenario where a bunch of factors all conspire together," Masters said. "But we definitely have to watch this one."
GOP and state officials have contingency plans ready, should the storm makes its way to Tampa, including an evacuation in a worst-case scenario. About 70,000 delegates, party officials, journalists, protesters and others are expected for the convention that culminates in the nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president and Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan for vice president.
"We're monitoring it," said James Davis, communications director for the Republican National Convention. "We're in close touch with all the federal, state and local agencies. We're focused on preparing still and having a great event starting on Monday."
A four-day mock hurricane drill was held in May featuring a pretend major storm striking the Tampa area during the second day of the convention. Under that scenario, planners canceled. A major hurricane is a Category 3 or above with winds at least 111 mph and the possibility of devastating damage.
"At this point, we're prepared for everything," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor on Tuesday. "We've certainly factored that into our plans."
Forecasters say that, fortunately for Tampa, most Gulf storms emerge earlier or later in the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Florida, historically the nation's top target for tropical systems, has not been hit by a major hurricane since Wilma in 2005. The new storm's potential threat comes just as South Floridians are marking the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 monster that resulted in 26 direct deaths and caused some $26.5 billion in damage when it came ashore south of Miami on Aug. 24, 1992.
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