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Tropical Storm Isaac grew stronger Saturday as it swept through parts of Haiti and Cuba, barreling northwest toward Florida, where more than 50,000 people were gathering in Tampa for the start of the Republican National Convention.
Isaac made landfall in eastern Cuba on Saturday afternoon after churning across Haiti, downing power lines and flattening tents in encampments of people still homeless from the 2010 earthquake.
Isaac is predicted to become a hurricane by the time it reaches the Florida Keys on Sunday. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency and officials urged tourists to leave the Keys
The National Hurricane Center placed the Keys and southwestern portions of the state under a hurricane warning and issued hurricane watches for western areas of Florida, including Tampa Bay.
As Isaac moves into the Gulf of Mexico on Sunday, Tampa could be battered by 39- to 73-mph winds and 4 to 8 inches of rain in advance of the convention's start Monday night.
Convention leaders were to meet Saturday evening to discuss Isaac and preparations to ensure the safety of convention delegates and visitors.
The forecast carries added weight after Tropical Storm Debby, which two months ago pummeled the western side of Florida, wiping out beaches and causing flooding in towns along the Gulf of Mexico and inland. Isaac will be worse, experts say. Winds are likely to extend at least 200 miles from the center of the storm.
“This storm will be far more damaging than what maps and dotted lines may reveal,” Dennis Feltgen, a National Hurricane Center meteorologist, told the Times.
Category 1 hurricanes bring winds up to 95 mph -- enough to down power lines and knock over some structures.
The hurricane’s trajectory isn’t certain after it makes landfall in the Keys, Feltgen said. It could spin into the bay south of Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla. Or it could churn farther westward and push into other Gulf states.
What is certain is that the fallout will stretch across much of Florida. Wind is just one component of hurricane damage. Storm surges – rising ocean water caused by wind and atmospheric pressure – could be as high as 7 feet in Florida.
Tornadoes could hit the northeastern part of the state. Overgrown trees and power lines dot the area, Feltgen said, and outages could go on for weeks if strong winds make it to that region.
“Most of the state is going to impacted by this,” Feltgen said. “Brace for the long haul.”
And if the panhandle of northern Florida gets the 5 to 10 inches of rain that have been forecast, the area will flood, Feltgen said. The red Georgia clay in parts of that area is saturated, and the water would have nowhere to go.