Tropical Storm Isaac poses threat to Caribbean; impact on Florida is uncertain
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (MCT) — The entire Florida peninsula fell inside Tropical Storm Isaac’s very broad risk “cone’’ on Wednesday but the threat to a string of Caribbean nations was clearer, more immediate and serious.
The biggest concern was Haiti. The capital city of Port-au-Prince, where some 400,000 earthquake refugees still live in tents, sat dead-center in Isaac’s path. Beginning Friday, Haiti and the Dominican Republic could both see a foot or more of rain. Far less has historically triggered deadly flooding and mudslides.
In Puerto Rico, emergency managers were cautiously optimistic that the island would dodge hurricane winds but were bracing for heavy rains as well. Gov. Luis Fortuño said Isaac had already taken one life — a woman preparing her home in Bayamon had slipped and fallen off a second floor.
It also was becoming increasing likely that South Florida would feel some effect from Isaac but whether it would amount to a soggy side-swipe or a damaging direct hit from a hurricane remained uncertain, said Robbie Berg, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade County.
“Really, the whole state of Florida has an equal chance of feeling tropical storm-force winds,” Berg said. That includes Tampa, where the Republican National Convention is scheduled to begin Monday in a low-lying section of the city vulnerable to storm surge. If the center’s 5 p.m. forecast on Wednesday remained unchanged, which is unlikely, Isaac would be churning close by, off the southwest Florida coast as the gathering begins.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, said state and local emergency managers were monitoring the storm and had contingency plans in the event of a hurricane threat or evacuation.
“I am confident in our preparation, and the decision process in place to ensure the safety of both our residents and visitors during the convention,” Scott said in a statement.
Emergency managers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties were also watching Isaac closely but said it would take another day, or even two, to evaluate the threat from the storm.
Curtis Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade’s director of emergency management, said some special-needs residents, such as the elderly or infirm, might be moved along with mobile home residents but he didn’t anticipate a large evacuation unless future scenarios called for a significant strengthening.
“I don’t think we’ll be concerned about surge with the current scenario,” he said.
Fighting dry air to its north, Isaac remained disorganized, with winds unchanged at 45 mph, but was showing signs of getting its act together. Forecasters expected it to strengthen into a Category 1 hurricane before it strikes Hispaniola on Friday. But the mountains of Haiti, as well as a passage across Cuba, should knock at least some of the air out of Isaac, Berg said. The hurricane center expects it to exit the coast of Cuba early Sunday as a tropical storm, with a chance of re-strengthening into a Category 1 hurricane as it approaches Florida.
Whether Isaac skirts the Gulf or Atlantic coasts or makes landfall, the storm is large enough that its outer bands will likely be felt somewhere in South Florida, Berg said.
Tropical storm or hurricane watches and warnings were posted for much of the Caribbean, from the Leeward Islands to Haiti.
Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection and National Meteorological Center warned residents in flood-prone areas to monitor the radio and “remain vigilant”
In advance of the storm, Puerto Rico suspended classes Wednesday and closed all government offices except those engaged in emergency operations, and the governor declared a state of emergency.
Eight flights were canceled from San Juan to neighboring Caribbean islands. The airport was not expected to close Thursday although airlines could cancel flights.
Warning Coordinator Meteorologist Ernesto Morales said the storm’s outer bands were already felt in the afternoon, with gusts of up to 37 mph detected at San Juan’s airport about 5 p.m. Wednesday. He said the storm promises plenty of rain islandwide, from 4 to 6 inches and up to 10 inches possible in some areas.
The storm will likely intensify during the night as it enters the warm waters of the Caribbean Basin.
“We all know these hot waters are gasoline for this kind of phenomenon,” Morales said.
At the Guantanamo base in Cuba, U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Durand said detainees at the seaside camp were safely housed but commanders were weighing whether to start evacuating “non-essential personnel,” including more than 100 people on the base for hearings in the Sept. 11 terror case.
(Miami Herald staff writers Carol Rosenberg and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.)