KEY WEST, Fla. – Tropical Storm Isaac barely stirred Florida Keys residents from their fabled nonchalance Sunday, while the Gulf Coast braced for the possibility that the sprawling storm will strengthen into a dangerous hurricane by the time it makes landfall there.
It 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 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, Fla. A Category 2 hurricane has sustained winds of between 96 and 110 mph.
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 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.
Elected leaders’ vigilance toward tropical storms has heightened in the seven years since Katrina struck. Criticism was leveled at officials reaching all the way to the White House over what was seen as the federal government’s slow and bungled response to the storm that killed 1,800.
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.
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.
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.
Along famed Duval Street in Key West, many stores, bars and restaurants closed, the cigar rollers and palm readers packed up, and just a handful of drinking holes remained open.
But people posed for pictures at the Southernmost Point, while at a marina Dave Harris and Robyn Roth took her dachshund for a walk and checked out boats rocking along the waterfront.
Just a summer day in Key West, Harris said.
The Gulf Coast hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since 2008, when Dolly, Ike and Gustav all struck the region. Florida has been hurricane-free since it was struck four times each in 2004 and 2005.