TAMPA, Fla. – All Isaac needs to do is come close to Tampa to bring a lot of problems to the Republican National Convention. Even during an average summer thunderstorm in this area, major roads can flood.
When a tropical storm raked the Tampa Bay area in June, thousands of homes and businesses lost power, tornadoes spun off and streets and bridges were closed as the storm was blamed for seven deaths statewide. It's still too early to say where Isaac will end up, but officials are closely watching the storm and say they're ready to make any decisions, if needed, about evacuations or cancellations as 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters descend on the city.
"Public safety will always trump politics," Tampa Mayor Bob 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. I don't care whether they're anarchists or they're delegates."
The current forecast has Isaac strengthening into a hurricane Thursday night and heading toward South Florida, arriving around Monday, the opening day of the convention and nearly a week of parties, speeches and other events culminating with the coronation of Mitt Romney.
The storm was still hundreds of miles from the tip of Florida on Wednesday, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph. Forecasters warned there was still a great deal of uncertainty with Isaac, and it could miss the state altogether.
"The storm is so far away at this point, the cone of error from this point out is tremendous," said Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon, who has been in constant contact with RNC officials about the storm threat.
Koon has been coordinating security and convention planning with party officials for more than a year. He said there was no reason out-of-state visitors should cancel their plans, and RNC officials were so far echoing that advice.
Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan McGrain said there was no consternation 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."
Pat Rogers, a committeeman in New Mexico who is already in Tampa for early meetings, said most delegates from his state would arrive Saturday before the storm.
"Clearly they are a little concerned," he said, before joking "that we have seen more rain in one day than we get in a year."
It has been rainy in Tampa recently. A flood watch was in effect Wednesday and part of a major interstate was underwater a day earlier after a downpour.
Officials were preparing for the worst-case scenario, a hurricane in the Gulf, making landfall just north of Tampa, pushing even more water and wind into the Tampa Bay area, 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.
Debra Sue Warshefski, spokeswoman for Tampa Fire Rescue, said the city will provide buses for people to get to shelters and she hoped protesters, especially those who are camping, would take advantage of any offers of help.
"If we call for an evacuation, are we going to require an evacuation and arrest them? No we're going to offer the opportunity for their safety," she said.
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.
Director of meteorology at Weather Underground, Jeff Masters, said based off the latest forecasts and computer models, there was a 3 percent chance of needing to evacuate the arena hosting the convention. There was 9 percent chance of Tampa experiencing tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph when the convention begins.
"Those odds are probably going to rise," he said.
Armario reported from Miami. Associated Press writers Gary Fineout in Tallahassee; Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb.; and Jeri Clausing in Albuquerque, N.M., also contributed to this report.