Tropical Storm Isaac could crash the biggest party this town has ever thrown.
Isaac, just a tropical wave thousands of miles away at the beginning of the week, now appears poised to reach southwest Florida as a Category 1 hurricane on Monday, possibly disrupting the Republican National Convention.
Emergency plans are in place to shorten or cancel the convention if a hurricane appears to be bearing down on Tampa, city and convention officials said.
But officials declined to divulge the details of those plans and say they expect the convention will go on as scheduled.
"We're in full RNC mode and focused on putting a great show for the convention," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "We are not anticipating having to make the decision" of canceling the GOP convention.
Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to declare a state of emergency during disasters. But the governor would not stop the convention without consulting with local officials and convention organizers, Scott's office said.
"There's not going to be any kind of unilateral decision. There are a lot of folks that are involved in any major decision like that. We're going to protect visitors and residents to make sure everyone is safe," Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said.
In a statement released Wednesday, Scott urged residents to prepare for a potential hurricane.
"Although Tropical Storm Isaac is still far from Florida's shores, we are closely tracking the potential for the storm to impact part or all of the state, including the Tampa Bay region during the Republican National Convention," Scott said.
"Florida's state emergency management team and local emergency teams have been working closely with convention officials and have been planning for this event for more than a year, and the possibility of a hurricane hitting the convention has been part of that planning process," he said.
Buckhorn said he would issue evacuation orders for downtown Tampa only after consulting with law enforcement, state, federal and GOP officials.
"The decision for the RNC is with the RNC," Buckhorn said of canceling the Aug. 27-30 convention. "I have jurisdiction over the city."
The main site of the convention is the Forum, which sits in the county's evacuation Zone B. That designation means an evacuation will be issued if winds reach 96 to 110 mph and tides swell to a height of 15 feet.
Next door is the Tampa Convention Center, which will house the GOP's committee on arrangements and the media. The building is in Zone A, which could be evacuated when winds reach 74 to 95 mph and tides crest up to eight feet.
According to the rules of the Republican Party, if the national convention cannot convene "or is unable to conduct its business either within the convention site or within the convention city," the roll call for the nomination of president and vice president would be held using procedures authorized by GOP officials.
Those procedures include taking the roll call through telephone, computer or any other electronic device "which will display votes to the convention simultaneously."
James Davis, spokesman for the committee on arrangements, said GOP officials have no plans to alter the schedule of the convention.
"We plan on having our convention next week," Davis said. "We will get our business done next week. We're looking forward to a great convention starting Aug. 27."
U.S. forecasters said Isaac was likely to approach Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as a hurricane late Thursday or early Friday after intensifying over the warm waters of the Caribbean. It was predicted to move on to Cuba as a tropical storm, then perhaps head by Monday to Florida.
The storm was 225 miles south-southeast of Puerto Rico, early Thursday, with maximum sustained winds near 40 mph. Isaac was moving west near 13 mph, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
"It's so far out," said Holley Wade, spokeswoman for Hillsborough County emergency management. "There's so many little variables and there's no one answer. Right now, we're standing by just to stand by."
Wade said standard protocols are in place, which means emergency officials will issue evacuation orders depending on Isaac's size, speed and intensity.
If Isaac does threaten Tampa, the priority of law enforcement is to evacuate citizens, leaving GOP officials to make the decision of when to evacuate delegates, Wade said.
National Weather Service forecaster Dan Noah said Isaac's current track shows the storm making landfall just west of Fort Myers about 2 p.m. on Monday, then skirting along Florida's Gulf Coast.
"That's the track we don't like," Noah said.
If Isaac lingers to the west of Tampa, its rotation could churn the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, sending storm surges and coastal flooding our way, Noah said.
But there are a lot of factors to consider, he said, including the storm's track, the size of its eye wall, the angle it takes as it swings north and how long it stays offshore.
Noah said there's a good chance Tampa will get wind and rain from Isaac early next week, although it's too early to predict how intense the weather will be.
"Florida will likely have some storm watches this weekend," Noah said.
More than 50,000 additional visitors and 15,000 protesters are expected to be in town when the convention starts. GOP delegates are expected to start arriving in droves on Saturday, just as Isaac is projected to make landfall in Cuba and take a swing north toward Florida.
Bob Morrison, the executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association, said Wednesday there have been no cancellations because of the storm.
"At this point, we haven't had any," Morrison said. "Everything is on target as scheduled."
Toni Jarms, a delegate from Oregon, said Isaac hasn't changed her mind about coming to Tampa.
"We have definitely not changed our plans for attending the convention," said Jarms, 65. "We are confident that the weather will not have a dampening effect."
State Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon said there's no reason out-of-state visitors should cancel plans to come to the convention and that he doesn't think the storm will lead to the cancellation of the event.
"Frankly, I don't think it's going to come to that," Koon said. "The best worst-case scenario would be a Category 1 storm that moves quickly."
The GOP has faced this situation before.
In 2008, Hurricane Gustav slammed into Louisiana just as the convention in St. Paul., Minn., was getting under way. The Category 2 storm led Republicans to cancel opening-day events and open with a scaled-down national convention.
Gustav also forced then-President George W. Bush to stay in Washington and address delegates via a satellite uplink.
State emergency officials conducted a mock drill in March. That scenario had a Category 3 hurricane making landfall in Tarpon Springs on the second day of the convention. The simulation showed massive storm surges crashing into Tampa, putting parts of the city under 20 feet of water.
During the drill, Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said if this scenario was real, downtown Tampa would be evacuated and the convention canceled.
"Public safety, that's going to be the No. 1 call," Carroll said. "We can have the convention again."
Buckhorn said safety is the main factor that will influence any decision to evacuate downtown.
"This storm could be just a rain event, but if it's serious, we have thorough contingency plans," Buckhorn said. "Human life is the priority."
Yet the mayor remains optimistic Isaac will have minimal effect on the largest event Tampa has ever hosted.
"We're ready to go," Buckhorn said. "Let's have the party."