Tropical Storm Isaac gained fresh muscle yesterday as it bore down on the Florida Keys, with forecasters warning it could grow into a dangerous Category 2 hurricane as it nears the northern Gulf Coast.
Isaac drew new strength early yesterday during a warm-water crossing of the Florida Straits after causing weekend havoc in Cuba, where it downed trees and power lines. Before that, Isaac was blamed for four deaths in Haiti.
On Key West, locals followed time-worn storm preparedness rituals while awaiting the storm after Isaac swamped the Caribbean and shuffled plans for the Republican National Convention. Forecasters said the storm was expected to reach the archipelago sometime yesterday at or near hurricane strength.
A steady line of cars moved north Saturday along the Overseas Highway, the only road linking the Florida Keys. Residents boarded up windows, laid down sandbags and shuttered businesses ahead of the approaching storm. Even Duval Street, Key West’s storied main drag, was subdued, though not enough to stop music from playing or drinks from being poured.
The Keys were bracing for storm surges of up to 1.2m, strong winds and the possibility of tornadoes. The island chain’s two airports closed on Saturday night, and volunteers and some residents began filing into shelters.
Isaac has already left a trail of suffering across the Caribbean.
The storm’s center made landfall on Saturday near the far-eastern tip of Cuba, downing trees and power lines.
At least four people were reported dead in Haiti, including a 10-year-old girl who had a wall fall on her, according to the country’s Civil Protection Office. The government also reported “considerable damage’’ to agriculture and homes. Nearly 8,000 people were evacuated from their houses or quake shelters and more than 4,000 were taken to temporary shelters.
The Grise River in Haiti overflowed north of Port-au-Prince, sending chocolate-brown water spilling through the sprawling shantytown of Cite Soleil, where many people grabbed what possessions they could and carried them on their heads, wading through waist-deep water.
Scores of tents in quake settlements collapsed. In a roadside lot in Cite Soleil, the dozens of tents and shelters provided by international groups after the 2010 earthquake were tossed to the ground like pieces of crumpled paper, and the occupants tried to save their belongings.
A Category 2 hurricane is capable of top sustained winds of 154kph to 177kph.
Isaac is not likely to hit Tampa head-on, but it could still lash the city with rain and strong winds just as the convention ramps up. A tropical storm warning is in effect for parts of Florida’s west coast, including Tampa Bay.
Convention officials said they would convene briefly today, then immediately recess until tomorrow afternoon, when the storm is expected to have passed.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, declared a state of emergency and canceled his plans to attend convention events yesterday and today.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the Keys, including the Dry Tortugas and for the west coast of Florida from Bonita Beach south to Ocean Reef, among some other areas, authorities said.