With meteorologists saying that Tropical Storm Isaac could hit Tampa right in the middle of next week's Republican National Convention, the city's mayor is preparing to take drastic measures in a worst-case scenario: Shutting down the convention altogether.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CNN on Wednesday morning that if the storm hit as a catastrophic hurricane he could pull the plug on the convention.
"Well, absolutely, we're prepared to call it off," Buckhorn said on the network's Early Start with John Berman. "Safety and human life trump politics. I think the RNC recognizes that. The organizers, certainly Gov. (Mitt) Romney, recognize that.
"Whatever we do will be based on getting people out of harms way. Politics will take second place."
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Still, Buckhorn said Tampa was prepared for the storm, and didn't expect it to impact the convention.
"We're prepared for it, we train for it, we have contingency plan after contingency plan," he said. "It is our reality of Floridians. I don't think it's going to be a factor in this particular convention, but we are prepared in case it is."
The storm's maximum sustained winds as of 5 p.m. Wednesday were 45 mph, and the U.S. National Hurricane Center says Isaac was expected to strengthen and could become a hurricane by Thursday.
It's much too early to say with any certainty whether Isaac will make a beeline for Tampa, on Florida's west coast. But it's the type of weather that convention organizers knew was a possibility during the peak of hurricane season — and they have backup plans in place in a worst-case scenario.
It's been 90 years since a major hurricane made a direct hit on Tampa. The last to strike Florida's west coast was Hurricane Charley, a Category 4 packing 150 mph winds. The Aug. 13, 2004, storm was small yet powerful — and was initially forecast to strike the Tampa Bay area before it turned and slammed Port Charlotte, about 100 miles south.
National Hurricane Center computer models predicted Isaac would become a hurricane over the next few days, meaning maximum winds must be at least 74 mph. Some models had the storm striking Florida, including the Tampa Bay area, after moving across Cuba or the Bahamas as early as Sunday morning.
Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weatherunderground.com, said long-range storm track predictions five days in advance are notoriously inaccurate, often off an average of 260 miles. But Masters said the climate situation has improved chances that Florida could be in the system's sights during the GOP event that runs Monday through Thursday.
"It would take a perfect storm of a scenario where a bunch of factors all conspire together," Masters said. "But we definitely have to watch this one."
As of Wednesday late afternoon, Isaac was centered about 25 miles south-southeast of Guadeloupe and moving west near 22 mph. Tropical storm warnings were in effect for Puerto Rico and its Culebra and Vieques islands, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and a swath of islands across the Caribbean including Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe, St. Martin, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Barbuda, Montserrat, Anguilla, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten.
A hurricane watch was in effect for Haiti, Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and the south coast of the Dominican Republic. A hurricane watch is typically issued 48 hours before the anticipated first occurrence of tropical-storm-force winds.
The storm's center was moving over the Leeward Islands Wednesday late aftenoon.
GOP and state officials have contingency plans in place if the storm makes its way to Tampa, including an evacuation in a worst-case scenario. About 70,000 delegates, party officials, journalists, protesters and others are expected for the convention that culminates in the nomination of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for president and Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan for vice president.
"We're monitoring it," said James Davis, communications director for the Republican National Convention. "We're in close touch with all the federal, state and local agencies. We're focused on preparing still and having a great event starting on Monday."
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, urging residents to monitor the storm and prepare for a potential storm.
A four-day mock hurricane drill was held in May featuring a pretend major storm striking the Tampa area during the second day of the convention. Under that scenario, planners canceled. A major hurricane is a Category 3 or above with winds at least 111 mph and devastating damage can occur.
"At this point, we're prepared for everything," said Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor on Tuesday. "We've certainly factored that into our plans."
Forecasters say that fortunately for Tampa, most Gulf storms emerge earlier or later in the hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Florida, historically the nation's top target for tropical systems, has not been hit by a major hurricane since Wilma in 2005. The new storm's potential threat comes just as South Floridians are marking the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 monster that resulted in 26 direct deaths and caused some $26.5 billion in damage when it came ashore south of Miami on Aug. 24, 1992.