Will a Hurricane Ruin the GOP's Big Bash in Tampa?

Isaac may spare the RNC convention only to hit New Orleans.

| Fri Aug. 24, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This explainer has been updated.

There's a long list of scenarios that could sour the mood at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. "Newt University" could go off the rails. "Violent anarchists" may make an appearance. Fifteen thousand protesters and Occupiers could gum up the GOP's works. The ban on puppetry might sadden Republican children. And then tropical storm Isaac, orginally forecast to hit Tampa just in time to spoil Mitt Romney's big kickoff party. Mother Nature's latest display of flagrant liberal bias now headed toward NOLA—but not before RNC organizers canceled the first day of the convention.

What is Isaac?

It's a tropical storm that was thought to hit Tampa on Monday, the first day of the GOP nominating convention. Here's an image from the National Hurricane Center's Wednesday night forecast showing the fast-moving storm's probable path (colloquially referred to as the "cone of doom" in Florida):

NationalNational Hurricane Center

Where did the name "Isaac" come from?

Isaac has been used for four distinct tropical cyclones in the Atlantic (tropical storms in 1988 and 2012, and hurricanes in 2000 and 2006). Names for hurricanes and storms are generally retired in the event of direct fatalities or extensive damage.

What are the chances the storm touches down in Tampa?

A direct hit by Isaac would be the first one Tampa has experienced in nine decades. Even including the worst-case scenario—torrential downpours, sizable storm surges, and full-scale hurricane-force winds—forecasters put the odds of evacuation at around 3 percent. (However, some analysts gave Isaac a 50 percent chance of harming American oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico.)

Are people besides convention-goers being affected by this storm?

Yes, very much so, and given the widespread danger Isaac poses in the Caribbean, it seems sort of myopic to focus on the RNC: Puerto Rico has opened 428 shelters, and 50 people have hunkered down so far, according to Gov. Luis Fortuno. (Roughly 4,000 people are already without power, and more than 3,000 don't have access to clean water.) The Virgin Islands are battening down the hatches as well and were hit with 40-mile-an-hour winds and a 10-foot surge of waves on Thursday.

Haiti, which is still recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake, could very well be in the path of the storm. Here's a video report:

What role does Walmart play in Florida's disaster response plan?

The state's director of emergency management, Bryan Koon, is a business school grad whose last job was running disaster response for Walmart and Sam's Club. His "extensive private-sector experience" must have made him attractive to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a privatization proponent whose personal portfolio has included Walmart stock and who has extolled the corporate chain's values on multiple occasions. (Walmart also contributed to Scott's inaugural fund, and gave $15,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.)

While working at Walmart, Koon gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency an interview (its since been wiped from the government agency's site) that offers some insight into his (and the corporation's) disaster preparedness philosophy:

We have an extensive database that helps us keep track of what the most popular items are after each type of disaster, which enables us to get the right merchandise to an area more quickly in preparation for or in response to an emergency…

Our ideal situation is one in which private sector, non-governmental organizations and local, state and federal government emergency management organizations…develop inter-operable plans that maximize those strengths and minimizes gaps in coverage…We feel that we are on the right road to get to this eventuality, but it will still be a long trip. It started with Hurricane Katrina, where the folly of planning in a vacuum and hoping for the best was exposed and the benefits of involving the private sector were clearly illustrated.

Koon's faith in Walmart's ability to figure out a hurricane isn't a total aberration; in 2008, multiple media outlets trumpeted "Wal-Mart to the Rescue," an economist's study (PDF) that concluded the big-box store performed impeccably in the post-Katrina recovery, thanks to "superior organizational routines that emerge through private ownership and competitive markets." Few of these media reports pointed out that the author, Stephen Horwitz, is a politically conservative libertarian whose CV includes numerous articles for The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies.

What have leaders in Florida been saying recently?

"Public safety—that's going to be the No. 1 priority. We can have the convention again," Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll said on Wednesday.

"We'd be dealing a lot with storm surge issues down there," Koon told reporters. "We're also working on a high number of potential evacuations."

Here's footage of a press conference Scott held on Thursday morning:

If this becomes a hurricane, where do folks find shelters?

The Hillsborough County government has a list [PDF] of public hurricane shelters for both low and high intensity storms (all the listed locations are at local public schools).

Is Tropical Storm Isaac a liberal conspiracy?

Um, no, but we'll keep you posted if new information comes through suggesting otherwise. In the meantime, here's Rush Limbaugh (a man famous for branding The Dark Knight Rises an anti-Romney conspiracy) talking about how President Obama is orchestrating the storm-related panic in order to throw the Republican convention into Day After Tomorrow-type chaos:

I can see Obama sending FEMA in in advance of the hurricane hitting Tampa so that the Republican convention is nothing but a bunch of tents in Tampa, a bunch of RVs and stuff. Make it look like a disaster area before the hurricane even hits there.

Is there something about GOP conventions that attract hurricanes?

Not quite, but this isn't the first time something like this has happened, either. For instance, just back in 2008, Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana while Republicans were beginning their national convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Even though the hurricane ended up missing St. Paul by hundreds of miles, weather concerns caused organizers to cancel or roll back several opening-day events.

And, of course, there are still the ghosts of Hurricane Katrina.

So, is climate change making this worse?

Well, it can't be helping. Earlier this summer, MoJo's Julia Whitty wrote about the reasons ("hotspots" in sea surface temperatures) that 2012 might be a bigger hurricane year for the East Coast.

 

UPDATE 1 (Friday, August 24, 11:50 a.m. PDT): At maximum sustained winds at 60 mph (the threshold for turning into a hurricane is 74), Tropical Storm Isaac has gained strength, but does not seem to be showing signs of rapid intensification. The Washington Post reports:

Much of southern Florida could receive 6-9” in the next few days, with locally higher amounts. Areas in Haiti and Dominican Republic could see 10-20” of rain, with 6-12” in Jamaica and eastern Cuba. Besides flooding, additional threats include coastal storm surge, tornadoes, and of course, winds from the storm itself.

The storm does appear to be veering West, away from the site of the Republican convention in Tampa. However, National Hurricane Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said Friday that "[n]ot by any stretch of the imagination [is Tampa] out of the woods with this thing."

Here's the National Hurricane Center's updated wind speed probability for the storm, for 8:00 a.m. EDT on Friday:

NHCNHC

Update 2 (Sunday, August 26, 2:30 p.m. PDT): Sunday afternoon, Tropical Storm Isaac started blasting the Florida Keys with rain and heavy winds, and could escalate into a Category 2 hurricane by the time it reaches the northern Gulf Coast in the next couple of days. Isaac has already killed nine people: seven in Haiti (where 8,000 people were evacuated) and two in the Dominican Republic.  

But the political casualties seem to be getting more attention. Even though the hurricane is not expected to directly hit the RNC, the National Hurricane Center has put out a tropical storm warning for Tampa Bay, and convention events have been postponed until Tuesday afternoon, when the worst of the storm is expected to have passed.  

Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency and canceled all of his convention-related activities today and tomorrow in order to help prepare the area and the 70,000 convention-goers for the mess. The Obama administration has dispatched FEMA, which already has emergency response teams on the ground, and coastal residents have been warned they may need to evacuate. 

Isaac is not going to rain on the Republican parade though. RNC Chair Reince Priebus affirmed: "The Republican National Convention is going to take place. We know that we will officially nominate Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan."  

Forecasters are not sure exactly what the path of the storm will be, and say hurricane conditions could reach anywhere from New Orleans to the Florida Panhandle by late Tuesday. –Erika Eichelberger

Update 3 (August 27, 2012 10:50 a.m. PDT):  Isaac has passed by Tampa and left the RNC unscathed, but is gathering strength and barreling its way towards the Gulf Coast, headed for New Orleans. The National Weather Service projects it will hit land as a Category 1 hurricane by late Tuesday. 

Though the storm, which coincides with the seventh anniversary of Katrina, is nowhere near that monster storm's Category 5 strength, it could still be pretty dangerous, according to AccuWeather. It's big, extending hundreds of miles from its center, and moving fast, and will likely bring inland flooding, downed trees, power outages and storm surges of up to 12 feet.  

Thousands have been evacuated in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and even though New Orleans residents haven't yet been ordered to leave their homes, many in the Katrina-ravaged Ninth Ward have understandably "self-evacuated." FEMA has moved thousands of pounds of emergency supplies to distribution centers in the area, and over 4,000 Louisiana National Guard troops have been deployed to help with the response. 

But on to more pressing things. As networks move some of their correspondents and anchors from Tampa to New Orleans, Republicans worry they may have to share airtime with footage of people evacuating and/or trying not to drown. 

RNC Chair Reince Priebus, for his part, is totally focused on the storm's potential victims. "Obviously we want to pray for anyone that's in the pathway of this storm," Priebus said today on NBC's "Today" show, "but the message is still the same: that all Americans deserve a better future and that this president ... didn't keep the promises he made in 2008." –Erika Eichelberger

Update 4 (August 28, 2012 9:00 a.m. PDT): This morning Isaac was heading towards landfall, and will most likely hit the Louisana or Mississippi coast as a Category 1 hurricane late tonight or early tomorrow. The storm could bring winds of up to 90mph, and certain places may see rainfall of up to 20 inches. Twenty-two people have now been left dead in its wake.
This morning Obama delivered a statement on Isaac from the White House. He urged residents to "listen to your local officials and follow their directions" and said he had signed a disaster declaration for Louisiana to ensure federal funding and FEMA help are at the ready.
"We’re dealing with a big storm and there could be significant flooding and other damage across a large area," he said. "Now is not the time to tempt fate. Now is not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously."
Or not. Because, as Rush Limbaugh notes, Obama is probably tampering with the forecast in order to screw with the RNC. The National Hurricane Center is "the regime… It's the government. It's Obama." –Erika Eichelberger

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