As Tropical Storm Isaac begins to flood parts of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the storm is providing a threatening preview to the GOP convention, which forecasters now say will receive worse treatment.
Even as Isaac slowed just south of Puerto Rico, the storm stirred up 10-foot waves and knocked out power and water for thousands of the island's residents Thursday morning, prompting a state of emergency. Forecasters predict the storm will strengthen into a hurricane by the time it hits the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and turns northward to Florida.
"I'm guessing Isaac will become a hurricane, but will only be a tropical storm in Tampa," says Jeff Masters, the co-founder and director of meteorology for Weather Underground. "Heavy rains are going to cause some traffic problems for people in town even if the storm sideswipes Tampa."
Tropical Storm Debby, for example, caused major flooding when it pounded Tampa in June. In the past 25 years, there have been two mass evacuations of Tampa. In 1985, when Category 3 Hurricane Elena churned up an 8-foot storm surge, and in 2004, when Hurricane Charley brought 150 mile-per-hour winds to the area despite making landfall well to the south.
Masters predicts that Tampa will not bear the brunt of the hurricane's impact, but says heavy rains in low-lying Tampa could cause serious transportation problems for the convention. And because the convention will take place at The Tampa Bay Times Forum located at sea level alongside Tampa Bay, it is especially vulnerable to flooding and storm surges. According to Master's predictions, there's a 15 percent chance Isaac could lash Tampa with tropical storm-force winds of up to 39 miles per hour.
Florida officials say that even a glancing blow from Isaac would disrupt the convention.
"It may not have to be a direct impact to Tampa that causes us to shift things around," says Brian Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "A storm hitting Florida during the convention, now you've got to figure out how different resources are going to be spread across the state. Maybe state and local agencies that were planning on focusing resources on the convention are stranded or are sent to different parts of the state."
An extra 50,000 people in the city is not the only complicating factor, he says. Any emergency measures, such as evacuations or altered transportation routes, must take into account that many of the visitors have no experience with hurricanes. Officials have not ruled out the possibility of postponing or relocating the convention, he says.
Seth Cline is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.