Forecasters cast a wary eye Wednesday on Tropical Storm Isaac, which was moving west in the Atlantic Ocean and poses a potential threat to Florida during next week's Republican National Convention in Tampa.
As of Wednesday morning, a hurricane watch is in effect for Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and the south coast of the Dominican Republic, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. Currently, Isaac is still a tropical storm with maximum sustained winds near 45 mph. But meteorologists say Isaac is likely to strengthen into a hurricane in the next 24-48 hours.
It's too early to say 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.
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 (120 kph). 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 (418 kilometers). 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."
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."
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 (170 kph) 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
Associated Press writer Tamara Lush contributed to this story from Tampa, Fla. _
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.