(Chicago Tribune) KEY WEST, Fla.— Tropical Storm Isaac rolled over the open Gulf of Mexico on Monday, where it was expected to grow into a hurricane before hitting land somewhere between Louisiana and Florida and close to the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The storm that left eight dead in Haiti blew past the Florida Keys with little damage and promised a drenching but little more for Tampa, where the planned Monday start of the Republican National Convention was pushed back a day in case Isaac passed closer to the bayside city.
The National Hurricane Center predicted Isaac would grow to a Category 1 hurricane over the warm Gulf and possibly hit late Tuesday somewhere along a roughly 300-mile stretch from the bayous southwest of New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle. That would be one day shy of seven years after Hurricane Katrina struck catastrophically in 2005.
Earlier predictions said Isaac would be a Category 2 hurricane but National Hurricane Center director Rick Knabb told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Monday that Isaac wouldn't be as strong as they initially thought. But Knabb urged residents not to focus their preparations the storm's current strength because such storms often do not stick to forecasters' predictions.
The size of the warning area and the storm's wide bands of rain and wind prompted emergency declarations in four states, and the hurricane-tested residents were boarding up homes, sticking up on food and water or getting ready to evacuate.
"I'm helping my friend pack and board up his beach house just in case (Isaac) makes its way over here," Pensacola resident Andrew Flock said Sunday.
Forecasters said Isaac could pack a double punch of flood threats for the Gulf Coast. If it hits during high tide, the storm could push floodwaters as deep as 12 feet on shore in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and up to six feet in the Florida Panhandle.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called a state of emergency, and 53,000 residents of St. Charles Parish near New Orleans were told to leave ahead of the storm. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley also declared states of emergency.
Meanwhile, the oncoming storm stopped work on rigs that account for 24 percent of daily oil production in the U.S. potion of the Gulf of Mexico and eight percent of daily natural gas production there, the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in its latest update Sunday.
Several area governors have altered their plans for this week's GOP convention in Tampa. Bentley has canceled his trip, and Jindal said he's likely to do so unless the threat from the storm subsides. Scott gave up a chance to speak.
Amtrak cancelled train service in Louisiana for Tuesday and Wednesday. The route than runs from New York to New Orleans would end in Atlanta, while its route from Los Angeles to New Orleans would stop in San Antonio. Amtrak was also suspending part of its rail line between Miami and Orlando, Fla.
Grocery and home improvement stores as well as fuel stations in Louisiana reported brisk business as residents sought to prepare for Isaac. Some gas stations were running out of supplies.
Even though the storm was moving well west of Tampa, tropical storm-force winds and heavy rains were possible in the area because of Isaac's large size, forecasters said. A small group of protesters braved rainy weather Sunday and vowed to continue despite the weather, which already forced the Republicans to cancel Monday's opening session of the convention. Instead, the GOP will briefly gavel the gathering to order Monday afternoon and then recess until Tuesday.
Tampa Mayor Bill Buckhorn, a Democrat, said the weather would be "squirrely" but predicted the storm would not unduly interfere with the convention.
"We're going to show the world on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday what a great place this is," he said. "As a state and a city, we're going to put on a good show and be a great host for the Republican Party."
As of 8 a.m. EDT Monday, the storm was centered about 185 miles (295 kilometers) west-southwest of Fort Meyers, Fla., and 360 miles (575 kilometers) southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph) and was moving west-northwest near 14 mph (22 kph).
Florida, historically the state most prone to hurricanes, has been hurricane-free since it was hit four times each in 2004 and 2005. Isaac will likely prove barely a memory for South Florida and Keys residents, who mostly took the storm in stride as its center passed just south of Key West on Sunday.
The storm did knock out power temporarily for around 16,000 customers throughout South Florida, and 555 flights were canceled at Miami International Airport. That forced some people to shuffle their travel plans and kept many, at least for a day, from enjoying their beach vacations.
In the low-lying Keys, isolated patches of flooding were reported and some roads were littered with downed palm fronds and small branches. But officials said damage appeared to be minimal, and many Keys residents held true to their any-excuse-for-a-party reputation.
The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region.
Before reaching Florida, Isaac was blamed for eight deaths in Haiti and two more in the Dominican Republic, and downed trees and power lines in Cuba. It bore down on the Keys two days after the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which caused more than $25 billion in damage and killed 26 people in South Florida.
SHUTTING OIL PRODUCTION
Meteorologists at Weather Insight, an arm of Thomson Reuters, predict the storm will spur short-term shutdowns of 85 percent of the U.S. offshore oil production capacity and 68 percent of the natural gas output.
Once ashore, the storm could wreak havoc on low-lying fuel refineries along the Gulf Coast that account for about 40 percent of U.S. refining capacity.
That could send gasoline prices spiking just ahead of the U.S. Labor Day holiday, analysts said. "It's going right in the heart of refinery row," Phil Flynn, an analyst with Price Futures Group in Chicago, said on Sunday.
London-based BP Plc, the biggest U.S. Gulf producer, said it was shutting production at all of its Gulf of Mexico oil and gas platforms and evacuating all workers on Sunday.
GULF COAST RESIDENTS URGED TO GET PREPARED
Isaac moved into the Gulf of Mexico after spending several days sweeping across the Caribbean.
In Haiti, Isaac added to the misery of more than 350,000 survivors of the 2010 earthquake still living in flimsy resettlement camps as water gushed into tents and corrugated plastic shacks were ripped apart by the wind.
Authorities in the impoverished nation said the storm had killed eight people, including three children.
In the Dominican Republic, officials said three people were missing, and confirmed the death of the mayor of a town near Santo Domingo, who was swept away as he tried to save another person from a flooded river.
No deaths or injuries were reported in Cuba, which got off lightly when the storm crossed its eastern flank instead of raking up the length of the island as originally predicted.
In Mississippi, Robert Latham, the director of the state's emergency management agency, urged residents to get prepared for the storm's possible arrival.
"This is important to remember, this is a huge storm," he said. "I don't have to tell you what a storm like that can do."
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.