MIAMI – Officials organized shelters and urged vacationers to leave the Florida Keys as Tropical Storm Isaac approached on Saturday, though preparations farther north focused on getting ready for the Republican National Convention.
Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to make sure local and state agencies would be ready. The governor said during a media briefing that delegates were being told on how to stay safe during a storm, and officials were ready for storm surge, bridge closures and other problems that could arise during the convention. He also said he was in close communication with local, state and federal agencies, as well as convention officials.
"We are a hospitality state. We know how to take care of people and we want to ensure their safety," Scott said Saturday.
A hurricane warning had been issued for the Keys, though it was still a sunny day in Tampa. Forecast models show Isaac won't hit Tampa head-on, but the storm will still likely lash the city with rain and strong winds just as the convention ramps up. Protests were to start in full force on Sunday afternoon, and demonstrators have vowed that they will make their presence known rain or shine.
Isaac was blamed for at least three deaths after dousing flood-prone Haiti and was expected to scrape eastern Cuba on Saturday. It was forecast to hit the Keys late Sunday or early Monday, and it then could bring stormy conditions to Florida's west coast before moving to the Panhandle.
Still, the storm was days away from the Panhandle. It was sunny and breezy on the beach Saturday in Pensacola, with people out strolling and playing in the sand. Condo associations told people to move furniture inside, but full-scale preparations hadn't yet begun. Waves weren't yet big enough for surfers.
When the storm hits, strong winds will be "enough to knock you over" and produce severe thunderstorms, said National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen.
Storm surge and tornadoes also are possible when Isaac hits, and winds could topple power lines and lead to lengthy power outages, Feltgen said. The Panhandle already has had a wet summer, so potential flooding was especially possible there.
Schools, airports, parks and beaches across South Florida closed ahead of the storm. In the Florida Keys, officials said they would open storm shelters and urged vacationers to leave. State officials warned Isaac was a massive storm -- even though the eye may not pass over Tampa, tropical storm-force winds extended 230 miles from the center.
Officials were handing out sandbags to residents in the Tampa area, which often floods when heavy rainstorms hit. Sandbags also were being handed out in Homestead, 20 years after Hurricane Andrew devastated the community there. Otherwise, however, convention preparations were moving ahead as usual.
Groups including Code Pink, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the AFL-CIO union and Planned Parenthood have already started arriving in Tampa, regardless of the forecast.
Police said even heavy rain could reduce the protesters' ranks, and could also bring relief from another worry: extreme heat.
Flooding and beach erosion is also a concern for southwest Florida. The hurricane warning included the west coast of Florida from Bonita Beach southward.