Chances of hurricane winds disrupting the Republican National Convention eased on Thursday as most predictions said Tropical Storm Isaac is unlikely to make a direct hit on Tampa.
Instead the path of the storm, which is expected to turn into a hurricane, should hit the extreme south of Florida and then curl northwards before pounding the state’s Panhandle.
But authorities have still not ruled out the possibility of postponing or relocating the convention, if the storm takes direct aim at the Tampa area.
Tampa’s Democratic mayor Bob Buckhorn said there is still a chance the convention — which is due to draw 70,000 delegates, journalists and protestors to the city — could be called off.
"Public safety will always trump politics," Buckhorn said. "And so my job, and our job, if we move into that mode, is to make sure we get people out of harm's way."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said the threat of a hurricane had always been factored in to the planning for the Tampa convention. “The storm is unique, Scott told CNN, because “it has the potential to threaten a major convention, designated a special national security event.”
He said he has convened local, state, federal and convention officials for twice-daily briefings to ensure that “everyone has the best information available, a complete picture of the situation, everything needed to make a good decision.”
But Craig Fugate, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the convention was not one of his biggest concerns, at least for now.
"People are spending a lot of time talking about that," Fugate said of the convention. "I wish they'd be talking about making sure people in the Keys are getting ready and that people in southwest Florida are getting ready," he told CNN.
Isaac weakened slightly as it dumped heavy rain off Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Thursday but it was expected to strengthen into a hurricane before tearing across the Dominican Republic and Haiti, U.S. forecasters said.
If it continues its path toward Florida, it should make landfall on Monday.
Isaac was centered about 225 miles south-southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday morning, moving westward at 13 miles per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. Top sustained winds had dropped to 40 miles per hour but the Miami-based hurricane center said re-strengthening was forecast over the next 48 hours.
"Isaac could become a hurricane on Friday before it reaches Hispaniola," the center said. Hispaniola is the island shared by both the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
The hurricane center said Isaac was expected to dump between eight and 12 inches of rain over some parts of Hispaniola, with total accumulations up to 20 inches in some areas.
"These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mud slides," it warned in an advisory.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, still has hundreds of thousands of people living in tents or makeshift shelters more than 2-1/2 years after a devastating earthquake that took more than a quarter of a million lives.
Most computer forecast models early on Thursday had shifted west from a day earlier and showed Isaac skirting across the north coast of Cuba before cutting across the Keys and southern tip of Florida on Monday.
It was then likely to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle, in the northwest corner of the state, although one model puts it almost directly over Tampa en route to the Panhandle.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba, Isaac forced the postponement of pretrial hearings that were to begin on Thursday for five prisoners accused of plotting the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Florida has not been hit by a major hurricane since 2005 and forecasts showed Isaac was not expected to strengthen beyond a weak Category 1, with top sustained wind speeds of about 80 mph.
Analysts at Weather Insight said Isaac has a 50 percent probability of moving into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production region.
The threat to Florida triggered a nearly 6 percent jump in orange juice prices on Wednesday as they surged to a six-week high in trading in New York.
Florida produces more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply, making it key to volatility in orange juice futures trading.
Depending on its severity, Isaac could worsen the fate of drought-hit farmers in the south. Though it would add valuable soil moisture for fall wheat seeding, it could harm early-maturing corn and soybean crops already weakened by the worst drought in half a century, said Don Keeney, meteorologist for MDA EarthSat Weather.
And following on from Isaac, Tropical Storm Joyce formed in the eastern Atlantic on Thursday. It is too early to say whether it may become a threat to land.
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