Tampa mayor 'prepared' to order evacuation if convention city threatened by hurricane

Published August 23, 2012

| FoxNews.com

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told FoxNews.com just days before the start of the Republican National Convention that he's prepared to order an evacuation of the host city if Tropical Storm Isaac strengthens to hurricane force and looks like it could make a "direct hit." 

"The safety of my residents and our guests and visitors is my No. 1 concern," Buckhorn said. 

Both Tampa and the Republican National Committee are taking precautions in case the storm threatens to rain on the GOP gala set to kick off Monday. For the time being, nobody really knows where the storm will hit or how strong it will be. The current forecast has Isaac strengthening into a Category I hurricane by Friday and heading toward South Florida, arriving around Monday. 

"We don't know," Buckhorn told FoxNews.com. He said the city is monitoring the storm, but noted they have a few days to figure out what to do, if anything. 

Buckhorn, for his part, can decide whether to order an evacuation. 

"I'm always prepared to do so, and I'm obligated to do so if there is the likelihood of a direct hit," he said, adding that by that point the RNC would probably have already made a decision on whether to go forward. 

For now, he said, "We are full throttle heading for the opening gavel." Buckhorn played down the possibility that "Hurricane" Isaac would wash out the GOP festivities.

TBO.com reported that Florida Governor Rick Scott said he would be in daily contact with the RNC and other officials for storm updates to determine whether to halt or shorten the convention, the report said.

"This state is prepared," Scott reportedly said. "We've been through hurricanes. If we have a hurricane, we will deal with it."

RNC convention planners also said in a statement Wednesday, without going into specifics, that they have plans in place in case of severe weather. 

"We are working closely with our partners at the federal, state and local levels to monitor the weather -- and we have contingency plans in place to ensure the health and safety of convention delegates, guests and visitors, and the Tampa Bay community. We are looking forward to a great convention," the statement said. 

Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon, who has been coordinating security and convention planning with party officials for more than a year, said there was no reason out-of-state visitors should cancel their plans, and RNC officials were so far echoing that advice. 

"The storm is so far away at this point, the cone of error from this point out is tremendous," said Koon, who has been in constant contact with RNC officials about the storm threat. 

Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan McGrain said there was no consternation or concern from any of the delegates or guests prepared to head south. After all, he said Nebraskans are used to dealing with severe weather and tornadoes every spring. 

"We can deal with extremes of every kind. I'm sure most of us would welcome a tropical storm as a new experience," McGrain said. "We're ready to ride it out." 

Still, officials had to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, a hurricane in the Gulf making landfall just north of Tampa, said Alex Sosnowski, a meteorologist from AccuWeather. Because a storm can often affect areas 100 miles from its center, people were told to pay attention. 

The city's geography has posed logistical challenges from the outset, including how people would get around a downtown that is only about 571 acres -- or less than 1 square-mile -- and is bordered by interstates and rivers, and punctuated with restaurants, cafes and offices. As many as 400 air-conditioned buses are expected to shuttle delegates and other visitors from their hotels on both sides of the bay to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the downtown hockey arena hosting the festivities. 

Any evacuation orders for the arena, where Romney will give his acceptance speech, would depend on a variety of factors, and would most likely not be made simply because a Category 1 storm, with winds of 74 mph, was approaching, officials said. Some visitors may not even be staying in would-be evacuation zones. Hotels have been booked 20 miles or more from downtown Tampa. 

It's unclear what might happen to convention plans if the opening days are canceled due to severe weather. Asked whether the RNC would be able to book all the same venues at a later date, Buckhorn said: "I guess we'll have to cross that bridge when we get to it," if they get to it. 

The last hurricane to strike Tampa was Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. The Category 1 storm moved across the state toward Tampa, weakening along the way. It still knocked down trees and power lines, and damaged buildings. Three people were killed, but none in the Tampa Bay area. 

FoxNews.com's Judson Berger and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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