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Gulf coast states prepare as hurricane warnings issued from Louisiana to Florida panhandle

Gulf coast states are preparing to be hit by Tropical Storm Isaac after the U.S. National Hurricane Center issued hurricane warnings for an area stretching from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle on Sunday.

Isaac is expected to hit somewhere between southeastern Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle either late Tuesday or early Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said. The warnings stretched from east of Morgan City, La. -- which includes the New Orleans area -- to Destin, Fla.

As Isaac passed over the Florida keys, preparations began farther north as forecasters warned that the storm could be a strong Category 2 hurricane by the time it reaches the Gulf Coast..

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency for Louisiana on Sunday afternoon, while New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu took the same action for his city.

"Now is not the time to panic; it's a time to prepare," Landrieu said in a statement. 

Jindal, a GOP governor expected to speak at this week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, said he was staying put in Louisiana to ride out the storm.

Mississippi and Alabama also called state of emergencies, with Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordering residents in Mobile and Baldwin counties to evacuate Monday morning beginning at 8 a.m.

National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb told Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant on a conference call that forecasters expect Isaac to drive a storm tide of 6-12 feet into coastal estuaries.

Isaac could come ashore Wednesday morning, seven years to the day after Hurricane Katrina killed more than 200 Mississippians and caused billions of dollars in damage.

The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.

As of 8 p.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 530 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 65 mph and was moving to the northwest at 15 mph.

Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 205 miles from the center, meaning storm conditions are possible even in places not in Isaac's direct path.

Even before reaching hurricane strength, Isaac has caused considerable inconvenience, with hundreds of flights canceled at airports in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. There were scattered power outages from Key West to Fort Lauderdale affecting more than 6,000 customers, and flooding occurred in low-lying areas.

Gov. Rick Scott said at a news conference Sunday evening that only minor damage was reported from Isaac, but wind gusts of 60 mph were reported as far north as Pompano Beach, north of Fort Lauderdale. While officials urged residents in southeast Florida to stay home, that recommendation was ignored by some surfers and joggers on Miami Beach and shoppers at area malls.

The storm was predicted to pass west of Tampa, the site of the Republican National Convention, but it had already disrupted the schedule there because of the likelihood of heavy rain and strong winds.

In Key West, Emalyn Mercer rode her bike while decked out with a snorkel and mask, inflatable arm bands and a paddle, just for a laugh. She rode with Kelly Friend, who wore a wet suit, dive cap and lobster gloves.

"We're just going for a drink," Mercer said.

"With the ones that are brave enough like us," Friend added.

Along famed Duval Street, many stores, bars and restaurants closed, the cigar rollers and palm readers packed up, and just a handful of drinking holes remained open.

That kind of ho-hum attitude extended farther up the coast. Edwin Reeder swung by a gas station in Miami Shores — not for fuel, but drinks and snacks.

"This isn't a storm," he said. "It's a rain storm."

With a laugh, Reeder said he has not stocked up aside from buying dog and cat food.

The forecast wasn't funny, however. Isaac was expected to draw significant strength from the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico..

At Miami International Airport, more than 450 flights Sunday were canceled. Inside the American Airlines terminal, people craned for a look out of one of the doors as a particularly strong band of Isaac began lashing the airport with strong rain and high wind.

Michele Remillard said she was trying to get a seat on a flight to New Orleans, well aware the city could be affected by Isaac later this week. In coastal Plaquemines Parish, La., crews rushed to protect the levees that keep floodwaters from reaching that New Orleans suburb.

Hurricane center forecasters are uncertain of the storm's path because two of their best computer models now track the storm on opposite sides of a broad cone. One model has Isaac going well west and the other well east. For the moment, the predicted track goes up the middle.

Haitians began to dig themselves out of the mud on Sunday, one day after Tropical Storm Isaac doused the Caribbean nation and killed eight people there and another two in neighboring Dominican Republic.

With a reported total of 10 deaths for the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the two countries, the scale of devastation was less than many people had feared.

But the capital and countryside of disaster-prone Haiti did suffer sporadic flooding, fallen poles and scores of toppled tents that housed people who lost their homes in the massive 2010 earthquake.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.