KEY WEST, Fla. - Tropical Storm Isaac started pelting the Florida Keys with rain and strong winds on Sunday, and it could strengthen into a dangerous hurricane by the time it starts hitting the northern Gulf Coast in the coming days.
Exactly where Isaac would hit once it passed the Keys remained highly uncertain, with forecasters saying hurricane conditions could reach anywhere from the New Orleans metro area to the Florida Panhandle by Tuesday. And the storm is large: tropical storm conditions extend more than 200 miles from the storm's center, meaning Isaac could cause significant damage even in places where it does not pass directly overhead.
Isaac has brought havoc to the Caribbean already, killing seven people in Haiti and downing trees and power lines in Cuba. And it had officials worried enough in Tampa that they shuffled around some plans for the Republican National Convention.
However, Isaac had yet to create a panic in South Florida, and it wasn't expected to become a hurricane by the time it passed over the Florida Keys. In Miami Shores, some residents said they hadn't even put up storm shutters. Edwin Reeder, 65, stopped by a gas station to pick up some drinks and snacks. He didn't bother topping off his car's half-full fuel tank.
Reeder said he hadn't put up storm shutters, instead just clearing his gutters so all the water could drain. And while he didn't stock up on canned goods for himself, he did buy some extra cat and dog food for his pets.
"This isn't a storm," he said. "It's a rain storm."
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. Hundreds of flights were canceled Sunday as the storm bore down.
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 4 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.
At least seven 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 earthquake 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.
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.
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 meet 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 50 miles southeast of Key West, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 60 mph.
It was moving to the west-northwest toward the Keys at 18 mph.
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