By Alan Gomez and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - All eyes were on the Mid-Atlantic on Tuesday as newly formed Tropical Storm Isaac began picking up steam, threatening the Republican National Convention, which convenes in Tampa next week.
Isaac is currently spinning with 40-mph winds about 500 miles east of the island of Guadeloupe, the National Hurricane Center reported. The storm is forecast to become a hurricane on Thursday with winds in excess of 74 mph.
Republican National Convention spokesman James Davis said Tuesday that officials have already been coordinating with the U.S. Secret Service- which is in charge of security for the event - and state and local emergency officials in preparation for the storm.
Florida Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said they have been working with RNC officials for a year and a half to ensure they know who they need to speak to, and how to communicate if a storm threatens the convention.
But Koon made it clear that his first priority if a hurricane hits Tampa would not be on the 50,000 people expected to visit Tampa for the convention. He said the politicians, delegates and reporters who will be at the conventions already have vans, buses, motorcades and even planes reserved for the week, so evacuating the city wouldn't be difficult for them.
"If this storm comes ashore, dealing with the delegates that are here, dealing with the reporters here, is going to be one of my lesser concerns," Koon said. "They're going to be a small percentage of the population we're worried about. I'm going to be dealing with the million plus people who don't have access to those resources."
Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters said it would take a "perfect storm" of conditions to bring the storm to the doorstep of Tampa as a hurricane during the convention.
"The odds are somewhere in the 1% to 3% range," that the storm will affect Tampa, he said. But that is one of the possibilities according to models of the storm.
One of the computer models shows Isaac making landfall near the Florida Keys, the other near West Palm Beach, Fla., according to the hurricane center. However, "it's not something we can pin down now," center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said.
Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro said the storm will likely be capable of producing heavy rainfall regardless of what its wind and storm surge potential is.
Storm warnings have been issued across a swath of islands in the Caribbean, including Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Desirade, Les Saintes, Marie Galante, St. Martin, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat and Barbuda.
Tropical storm watches have been issued for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Vieques, Culbera, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and the British Virgin Islands.
"The state of Florida has a great emergency management system and has certainly had hurricanes before," Davis said. "We're going to follow those protocols."
Davis is no stranger to bad weather and conventions.
He was at the 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minn., which was delayed by a day out of respect to victims of Hurricane Gustav, which slammed into Louisiana on Aug. 31 as a Category 2 hurricane.
That season's most damaging hurricane did not threaten the convention, but Republican nominee John McCain said it "wouldn't be appropriate to have a festive occasion while a near tragedy or a terrible challenge is presented in the form of a natural disaster." Among those who did not speak as a result: President George W. Bush, who had been criticized for a slow response to Hurricane Katrina three years earlier.
Some of the 50,000 delegates, politicians and reporters expected at the convention in Tampa began arriving this week.
Davis said the large media contingent would actually be helpful if a hurricane hits because they could help get the word out about a potential U.S. landfall. And while safety for the convention-goers will be a priority in the days leading up to the event, their main focus remains on the work of the convention itself.
"What we're really focused on is having a successful convention," Davis said. "And that we also do the business of nominating Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan officials to be our candidates for president and vice president."
A severe thunderstorm swept through the Tampa Bay region late Monday blowing the top off a covered walkway that was set to serve as one of the main entrances connecting the convention center to The Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Much of the area around the Forum, which will host most of the work and speeches of the convention, has been covered by tents.