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Isaac Skirts Cuba on Path to Florida Keys, Panhandle

Tropical Storm Isaac is skirting Cuba’s northern coast, then will turn north along western Florida and possibly soak the Republican National Convention in Tampa on track to landfall near Pensacola next week.

The storm may strike the Florida Keys as a Category 1 hurricane late tomorrow. About 8.6 percent of U.S. oil production and 1.6 percent of natural gas output from the Gulf of Mexico are shut because of Isaac, a Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement report today showed.

“It will be lifting off the northeast coast of Cuba tomorrow and once it gets away from all this land, at that point, we expect it to become a hurricane,” said Dan Pydynowski, a senior meteorologist at AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania. “On Sunday night, it crosses the lower Keys probably as a Category 1 hurricane” with winds of at least 74 miles (119 kilometers) per hour.

Isaac, 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Camaguey, Cuba, has been closely watched because of its potential threat to the Republican National Convention, which starts Aug. 27, and because its track will take it into the Gulf, home to 23 percent of U.S. oil production, 7 percent of natural gas output and 44 percent of the country’s refining capacity.

Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a statewide emergency. A strike near Pensacola would mark the first time a hurricane has gone ashore on the Gulf coast since 2008. The National Hurricane Center said the Isaac might reach Category 2 strength before landfall.

Convention Outlook

Scott said yesterday that Isaac wouldn’t cause delays at the convention. Few delegates had canceled, he said. Vice President Joe Biden dropped plans to visit Tampa during the convention because of concern that the trip may disrupt disaster planning, according to a statement from President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

Scott’s emergency declaration activates the National Guard. The governor encouraged people planning to attend the convention to carry on with their plans.

“There is no need to cancel hotel reservations at this time due to Tropical Storm Isaac,” he said in a statement. “Florida is the number one tourism destination in the country and is accustomed to handling weather events as related to visitors.”

Tampa Visitors

More than 50,000 people are expected to visit the Tampa Bay area as Republicans hold their meeting, said James Davis, a convention spokesman. The Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the gathering, is in a mandatory-evacuation zone once storms reach 96 mph, Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the Hillsborough County Hurricane Guide.

Amtrak suspended passenger rail service south of Orlando at least through tomorrow because of the storm, according to a statement from the federally run railroad.

Hurricanes don’t move under their own power. Instead, they are pushed and pulled by other weather systems, Pydynowski said.

Isaac has become enmeshed with a low pressure area in the Caribbean, and that will alter its track, possibly pushing it further west as it moves into the Gulf, according to a forecast analysis by Jack Beven, senior hurricane specialist at the NHC in Miami.

“For the next 24-36 hours Isaac and the center will likely rotate around each other,” Beven wrote. “Based on this expectation the forecast track shows Isaac moving northwestward for 12 hours or so followed by a turn toward the west-northwest.”

Path Uncertain

The result may be that Isaac could strike anywhere between Louisiana and Florida, he said.

Tampa will probably feel the brunt of “squally winds” and receive as much as 5 inches of rain, said Jim Rouiller, senior energy meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

“For Tampa to get catastrophic flooding, the storm would have to move west to east into the bay, and that is not going to happen,” Rouiller said.

Isaac’s top winds were 60 miles per hour and the storm was moving northwest at 21 mph, according to a hurricane Center advisory at 2 p.m. New York time.

The current forecast track takes the storm along Cuba’s northern coast today and then across the Florida Straits and Keys tomorrow, according to the hurricane center. From there, Isaac is expected to grow into at least a Category 2 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale before going ashore near Pensacola by mid-week, the center said in a forecast analysis.

Rig Risk

“We’re lessening the energy risk,” said Joel Widenor, co-founder of Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. “The risk to the western Gulf is declining.”

Rouiller said because storms spin counter-clockwise, the parts of Isaac that will hit the bulk of energy platforms in the Gulf will be the weakest.

“The most damaging part will be to the east of the rigs,” Rouiller said. “I don’t expect any lasting damage.”

BP began evacuating its Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf yesterday and suspended crude and natural-gas production there before the storm. The London-based company also plans to remove non-essential workers from its Na Kika, Horn Mountain and Marlin platforms, Arturo Silva, a BP spokesman, said in a statement.

The Williams Co. was securing the Blind Faith, Devils Tower and Canyon Station platforms in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Based on Isaac’s projected track, the company expected to shut the platforms and evacuate workers Aug. 26 or Aug. 27, a notice posted on Williams’s website showed.

Gulf Evacuations

Exxon Mobile Corp., Chevron Corp., Murphy Oil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Eni SpA, Apache Corp., Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc. and Ensco Plc said they were evacuating nonessential workers. Shell said on its website that drilling operations have been suspended on some central and eastern Gulf assets, though production hasn’t been affected. Murphy also halted drilling operations, Barry Jeffery, a company spokesman, said by e-mail.

Transocean Ltd. said it evacuated 91 non-essential workers from three deepwater rigs. Most of the company’s 13 deepwater rigs in the Gulf have secured the wells they were working on, Guy Cantwell, a company spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Isaac dropped heavy rain in Haiti, where about 500,000 people are still living in temporary housing since a 2010 earthquake. As much as 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain may fall, which can cause life threatening mudslides, the hurricane center said.

At least three people have died in Haiti, according to the Associated Press.

Heavy Rain

As much as 12 inches of rain could fall across central and eastern parts of Cuba, the Florida Keys and the southern peninsula of Florida. Schools and offices in the Keys are closed until the system passes.

A hurricane warning, meaning winds of at least 74 mph will arrive within 36 hours, was posted for the Florida Keys, Florida Bay, state’s west coast from Bonita Beach south to Ocean Reef.

A hurricane watch, meaning a strike is possible, covers Haiti, Florida’s east coast from Golden Beach to Ocean Reef and Andros Island in the Bahamas, according to the hurricane center.

Tropical storm warnings, meaning winds less than 74 mph are probable, have been posted for Haiti, parts of Cuba, the Bahamas, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Florida’s east coast from Sebastian Inlet southward to Ocean Reef and Lake Okeechobee. Some of these areas overlap with other warnings.

Isaac is the ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season this year. Ten storms have formed this year, including Tropical Storm Joyce, which has already fallen apart.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Hurricane Center, said there may be as many as 17 named storms this season, including hurricanes, according to a statement Aug. 9.

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