Tropical Storm Isaac is taking aim at Florida, and the latest forecast suggests it could strengthen into a hurricane by Thursday, and hit Tampa next week just as the Republican National Convention gets underway. GOP organizers are keeping a close watch on the storm and preparing accordingly. The threat of Isaac has already forced the postponement of hearings in the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is also in the storm's projected path. Could Isaac disrupt the GOP's big event? Here, a brief guide:
Where is Isaac now?
As of early Thursday, the storm was churning in the Caribbean, 250 miles southeast of Puerto Rico. It's moving slowly toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti, then Cuba, and could reach the Florida Keys early Monday, the opening day of the convention, and the start of a week of parties and speeches leading up to the official nomination of Mitt Romney as the GOP's presidential candidate. The storm could reach Tampa by that night or the next morning. But it's frustratingly hard to predict the path of a tropical storm or hurricane this far out. "We're not going to have an idea until Sunday at the earliest what kind of risk this poses to Tampa," says Jeff Masters of Weather Underground. "It's quite the drama."
How strong is the storm?
Isaac's top sustained winds were just 40 miles per hour Thursday morning, but the storm is expected to gather steam and reach hurricane strength, with winds of 74 miles per hour or more. By the time it reaches Florida — if it reaches Florida — forecasters expect Isaac to be a Category 1 hurricane, meaning its winds will be between 74 mph and 95 mph. That could complicate things for the 50,000 people descending on Tampa for the convention, although at this point forecasters say there's only a 9 percent chance the city will feel winds of 40 mph or stronger.
What would happen if it hit Tampa?
Florida has been preparing for the convention for more than a year, with the possibility of a hurricane in mind. The state's Energy Management Division ran a simulation in May to make sure the GOP convention could continue as planned if a storm like Isaac blew in. The city has 400 buses available to move delegates to safety if there's trouble at the convention center, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, which is in a low-lying area. Republican officials have dozens of venues to choose from if they need to move major events, and several could accommodate the entire assembly of delegates. "We have contingency plan after contingency plan," says Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "I'm not really nervous at all."
What's the worst-case scenario?
There's a remote chance Isaac could veer west into the Gulf of Mexico, gather strength over its warm waters, then curve back to hit just north of Tampa as a major storm, says meteorologist Alex Sosnowski of Accuweather. If Isaac were to hit as a Category 4 storm, with winds of 130 mph to 156 mph, it could send 20 feet of water over the convention site, says Masters of Weather Underground. Even if it hits as a weaker Category 2, with 96- to 110-mph winds, the area would have to be evacuated. The bottom line, Buckhorn says, is that if things get dangerous, "we're prepared to call it off. I mean, human safety and human life trumps politics. I think the RNC recognizes that."
What's the best-case scenario?
If Isaac weakens, remains a non-threatening tropical storm, or turns harmlessly out to sea, the GOP's celebration of Romney's coronation can proceed exactly as planned. Still, even if Isaac's winds stay away but it pelts Tampa with rain, major roads could flood and make it hard for delegates to get around. And as long as Isaac threatens some part of the Southeast with hurricane-force winds, it could put a damper on the party. That's what happened in 2008, when Hurricane Gustav approached Louisiana as that year's GOP convention began 1,000 miles away in Minneapolis. Republicans toned down the hoopla out of concern for residents of the hurricane-weary Gulf Coast, who are now bracing for yet another storm.