KEY WEST, Fla. — Tropical Storm Isaac churned toward the northern Gulf Coast early Monday and promised to give the Republican National Convention a good drenching after lashing the Florida Keys and Miami area with wind and rain.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Isaac would grow to a Category 2 hurricane over the warm Gulf of Mexico and possibly hit late Tuesday somewhere along a stretch that starts west of New Orleans and runs to the edge of the Florida Panhandle. That would be one day shy of seven years after Hurricane Katrina struck catastrophically in 2005.
A Category 2 hurricane has sustained winds of between 96 and 110 mph (154 to 177 kph) and a strong storm surge. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans were told to leave ahead of the storm.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also declared states of emergency, while oil companies began evacuating workers and cutting production at Gulf offshore rigs in Isaac’s projected path.
Several area governors have altered their plans for this week’s GOP convention in Tampa. Bentley has canceled his trip, and Jindal said he’s likely to do so unless the threat from the storm subsides. Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave up a chance to speak.
A hurricane warning was in effect for an area that covers a roughly 300-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast in four states from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle. Tropical storm warnings were effect for a section of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast from Morgan City to Intracoastal City. Tropical storm warnings were also in effect for many areas along Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Even though the storm was moving well west of Tampa, tropical storm-force winds and heavy rains were possible in the area because of Isaac’s large size, forecasters said. A small group of protesters braved rainy weather Sunday and vowed to continue despite the weather, which already forced the Republicans to cancel Monday’s opening session of the convention. Instead, the GOP will briefly gavel the gathering to order Monday afternoon and then recess until Tuesday.
Tampa Mayor Bill Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the weather would be “squirrely” but predicted the storm would not unduly interfere with the convention.
“We’re going to show the world on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday what a great place this is,” he said. “As a state and a city, we’re going to put on a good show and be a great host for the Republican Party.”
As of 5 a.m. EDT Monday, the storm was centered about 180 miles (290 kilometers) southwest of Fort Meyers, Fla., and 405 miles (650 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph) and was moving west-northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).
Florida, historically the state most prone to hurricanes, has been hurricane-free since it was hit four times each in 2004 and 2005. Isaac will likely prove barely a memory for South Florida and Keys residents, who mostly took the storm in stride as its center passed just south of Key West on Sunday.
“This is routine for us,” said Annie Lopez, 47, a lifelong Key West resident. “It’s down to a science.”
Added Jean Claude Philemy of Miami: “Every year it’s almost the same. We can deal with it.”
The storm did knock out power temporarily for around 16,000 customers throughout South Florida, and 555 flights were canceled at Miami International Airport. That forced some people to shuffle their travel plans and kept many, at least for a day, from enjoying their beach vacations.
“I have friends who tell me to come in January,” said Peter Muller, who was visiting Miami with his family from Germany. They spent part of Sunday at a Miami-area mall. “Maybe they know best.”
In the low-lying Keys, isolated patches of flooding were reported and some roads were littered with downed palm fronds and small branches. But officials said damage appeared to be minimal, and many Keys residents held true to their any-excuse-for-a-party reputation.
“The storm was the most fun thing ever!” exclaimed Sergey Jadzevics, who were taking pictures on famed Duval Street in Key West, a fresh bottle of vodka in hand.
“It’s not really scary,” added Kevin Furcrown, another Key West resident. “It’s more of a hassle than anything.”
The Gulf Coast hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.
Before reaching Florida, Isaac was blamed for eight deaths in Haiti and two more in the Dominican Republic, and downed trees and power lines in Cuba. It bore down on the Keys two days after the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which caused more than $25 billion in damage and killed 26 people in South Florida.