By MATT SEDENSKY
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) – Tropical Storm Isaac gained fresh muscle Sunday 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 Sunday 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. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Sunday that Isaac had started lashing the Keys with rain and wind by late morning.
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 for a weekend, though not enough to stop music from playing or drinks from being poured.
“We’ll just catch every place that’s open,” said Ted Lamarche, a 48-year-old pizzeria owner visiting Key West to celebrate his anniversary with his wife, Deanna. They walked along on Duval Street, where a smattering of people still wandered even as many storefronts were boarded up and tourists sported ponchos and yellow slickers.
“Category None!” one man shouted in a show of optimism.
The Keys were bracing storm surge of up to four feet, strong winds and the possibility of tornadoes. The island chain’s two airports closed Saturday night, and volunteers and some residents began filing into shelters.
“This is a huge inconvenience,” said Dale Shelton, a 57-year-old retiree in Key West who was staying in a shelter.
Isaac has already left a trail of suffering across the Caribbean.
The storm’s center made landfall Saturday near the far-eastern tip of Cuba, downing trees and power lines. In the picturesque city of Baracoa, the storm surge flooded the seaside Malecon and a block inland, destroying two homes.
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 earthquake were tossed to the ground like pieces of crumpled paper, and the occupants tried to save their belongings.
After Isaac passes the Keys, it will move over the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to gain significant strength. It could ultimately make landfall on the northern Gulf Coast late Tuesday or early Wednesday. However, forecasters have stressed that the storm’s exact path remains highly uncertain.
“Definitely the northern Gulf Coast should be preparing for a hurricane right now,” Jessica Schauer, a meteorologist with the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
A Category 2 hurricane is capable of top sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph (154 to 177 kph).
Isaac isn’t 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 on Monday, then immediately recess until Tuesday afternoon, when the storm is expected to have passed. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, declared a state of emergency and canceled his plans to attend convention events on Sunday and Monday.
As of 8 a.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 80 miles (129 kilometers) southeast of Key West, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph).
It was moving to the west-northwest toward the Keys at 18 mph (29 kph). Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 205 miles (335 km) from the center, meaning storm conditions were possible in many places even if Isaac does not pass directly overhead.
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.
Meanwhile, a hurricane watch was in effect from east of Morgan City, La. – including the New Orleans metro area – eastward to Indian Pass., Fla.
Republican officials in Tampa abruptly announced plans Saturday night to scrap the first day of their national convention, bowing to the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac as it bore down menacingly on Florida.
The announcement was made as convention-goers flocked to the Tampa Bay area by the planeload for what had been scripted as four days of political pageantry and speechmaking with a purpose — to propel Romney into the fall campaign against President Barack Obama. Officials said they hoped to begin laying out a revised schedule on Sunday.
Georgia Power is gearing up to assist Florida as Isaac approaches. A spokesperson for Georgia Power told FOX 5 News they were sending crews to Florida early Sunday morning.
They say the situation is unique as they would usually send crews to a storm-affected area for at least a week to assist, but since Georgia is in the expect path of Isaac, they will be closer and will only be down in Florida for two to three days.
Georgia Power says most of the crews will be coming from outside metro Atlanta. They also are finalizing emergency plans as the storm approaches Georgia.
RED CROSS RESPONSE
Members of the Atlanta’s Red Cross chapter were in Tampa on Saturday preparing to help those affected by the storms. Hundred of volunteers poured into the area for last minute briefings and organizing.
Ruben Brown with the Atlanta Red Cross shared several photos and stories with FOX 5 News of how they are getting ready to assist those affected by the storm. They do not expect to be deployed to hard-hit areas until after the storm passes.
None of the Florida airports had announced any closures as of Saturday evening, but they are preparing as Isaac approaches. Several airlines are also preparing.
Spokespersons for Airtran, Delta, and Southwest airlines tell FOX 5 News that they have plans in place to waive fees and help travelers reach their destinations despite expected flight cancellations and service disruptions.
The airlines all have travel advisories on their websites which are being updates as conditions change. You can see those by going to their website:
Passengers can also check Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport for flights to Florida by going to atlanta-airport.com.
While no evacuation orders have been given in Florida, some residents might voluntarily leave the state. The most common way would be by taking Interstate Highway 75, 95 or 10.
Amtrak Silver Service will be affected through at least Monday. Rail service south of Orlando has been Sunday. This will affect Train 92 and 98. No alternative transportation will be available. Customers can get updates from their website at Amtrak.com/alerts.
Greyhound and megabus.com have not posted any advisories on how Isaac is affecting their service to Florida.
The FOX 5 Storm Team predicts that portions of Georgia could see as much as 12 inches of rain in the coming weeks as Isaac moves inland. This forecast could change if the path of the storm changes. Stay with the FOX 5 Storm Team for the very latest.
The FOX 5 Storm Chaser will be heading to Florida and will have live reports Monday beginning at 5 p.m.
For more on Isaac or any other activity in the tropics, visit myfoxhurricane.com.
The Associated Press contributed to portions of this article. Those portions are Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.