Tropical Storm Isaac barely stirred Florida Keys residents from their fabled nonchalance Sunday, while the Gulf Coast braced for the sprawling storm that might strengthen into a dangerous hurricane.
As the storm heads into the Gulf of Mexico it is causing a tornado watch until 9 a.m. Tuesday for several Bay area counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Polk.
Isaac was on course to strike land on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a powerful storm that crippled New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and became a symbol of government ineptitude. Forecasters expected Isaac to pass the Keys late Sunday before turning northwest and striking as a Category 2, with winds between 96 and 110 mph, hurricane between New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle on Wednesday.
The National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane warning for a large swath of the northern Gulf Coast from east of Morgan City, La. — which includes the New Orleans area — to Destin.
Isaac will continue moving west-northwest overnight, much farther west than originally forecast, said Steve Jerve, News Channel 8 meteorologist. He described it as an amazing shift in 24 hours.
It now appears headed for the eastern Gulf, in the area of Mobile, Ala., Biloxi, Miss., or even eastern Louisiana, he said.
In the morning, commuter should be ready for squally rains, Jerve said, adding they will be fast and windy. And they should expect rain on and off through the day
There always is an outside chance of a tornado in these conditions, Jerve said, recalling two months ago on June 24 there were about 30 tornado warnings from Tropical Storm Debby.
News Channel 8 meteorologist Brooks Garner added that high winds in the Bay area of more than 40 mph could also force the closure of bridges as one of the secondary effects of Isaac
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called a state of emergency and officials in St. Charles Parish near New Orleans told its 53,000 residents to leave ahead of the storm. Jindal also said he may skip a speaking engagement later this week at the Republican National Convention in Tampa unless the threat to his state subsides. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has canceled his trip to the convention because of Isaac, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott also gave up his speaking engagement at the party meeting.
An emergency declaration was also issued in Mississippi by Gov. Phil Bryant amid concerns of storm surge threatening low-lying areas. Oil companies began evacuating workers from offshore oil rigs and cutting production in advance of Isaac.
As of 8 p.m. EDT, the storm was centered about 530 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Isaac had top sustained winds of 65 mph and was moving to the northwest at 15 mph.
Tropical storm-force winds extended outward up to 205 miles from the center, meaning storm conditions are possible even in places not in Isaac's direct path.
"That's good for us but not for Mississippi," said Gov. Rick Scott, adding that the Panhandle can expect 18 inches of rain.
"Everyone needs to be cautious, have three days of water, three days of food, a full tank of gas, and medicines," Scott said.
The governor said he has talked to President Barack Obama, and conversations with state, local and federal authorities are good with each of the agencies working off of the same information.
The storm was on a course to pass west of Tampa, but it had already disrupted the Republicans' schedule there because of the likelihood of heavy rain and strong winds that extended more than 200 miles from its center. The convention cancelled business for Monday, and will resume Tuesday.
Even before reaching hurricane strength, Isaac caused considerable inconvenience, with more than 550 flights canceled at Miami International Airport and about 150 from Fort Lauderdale's airport. There were scattered power outages from Key West to Fort Lauderdale affecting more than 16,000 customers, and flooding occurred in low-lying areas.
Isaac was expected to draw significant strength from the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but there remained much uncertainty about its path.
The Gulf Coast hasn't been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region. Florida, meanwhile, has been hurricane-free since it was struck four times each in 2004 and 2005.
Hurricane center forecasters are uncertain of the storm's path because two of their best computer models now track the storm on opposite sides of a broad cone. One model has Isaac going well west and the other well east. For the moment, the predicted track goes up the middle.
Panhandle residents stocked up on water and gasoline, and at least one Pensacola store ran out of flashlight models and C and D batteries. Scott Reynolds, who lives near the water in Gulf Breeze, filled his car trunk with several cases of water, dozens of power bars and ramen noodles.
"Cigarettes — I'm stocking up on those, too," he said.
Before reaching Florida, Isaac was blamed for seven deaths in Haiti and two more in the Dominican Republic, and downed trees and power lines in Cuba. It bore down on the Keys two days after the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which caused more than $25 billion in damage just north of the island chain.