Tropical Storm Isaac gained strength in the Caribbean Sea on a path toward Haiti and Cuba, a course that may threaten energy production in the Gulf of Mexico and the Republican National Convention next week.
The ninth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season will probably cross Haiti late today and move over eastern Cuba during the weekend. It may reach the southwest coast of Florida on Aug. 27, the opening day of the Tampa gathering at which Republicans are expected to nominate Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate.
The system is forecast to strengthen into a hurricane off the west coast of Florida in about four days, the National Hurricane Center said.
“It should be noted that there is significant uncertainty in tropical cyclone intensity predictions at three to five days,” the center said.
The Gulf is home to 29 percent of U.S. oil production, 6.3 percent of natural-gas output and 40 percent of refining capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Florida is the largest orange grower after Brazil.
More than 50,000 people are expected to visit the Tampa Bay area on Florida’s west coast next week as Republicans hold their four-day meeting, said James Davis, a convention spokesman.
Isaac was 220 miles (354 kilometers) southeast of Port-au- Prince, Haiti, as of 8 a.m. East Coast time, the Miami-based hurricane center said in an advisory. The system, moving west at 15 miles per hour, had top sustained winds of 50 mph, up from 45 mph. A storm becomes a hurricane when winds reach 74 mph.
While Isaac is a disorganized storm, it’s also a big tropical system, said Matt Rogers, president of Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. The size gives it a better chance of surviving a brush with Cuba and the island of Hispaniola with its 10,000-foot mountains, which can tear storms apart, he said.
“I’ve seen storms die after hitting those mountains but I think it will survive.” Rogers said by telephone today.
Rogers said he believes Isaac will enter the Gulf and draw energy from the warm water there. He gives the storm a 30 percent chance to strengthen into a Category 3 system, making it a major hurricane.
The hurricane center’s current tracking map shows Isaac making landfall near the Florida-Alabama line early Aug. 29. Rogers said he has increased the odds of Isaac plowing into the western Gulf of Mexico and going ashore somewhere from Texas to Louisiana to 45 percent. The odds it will land in Florida are about 30 percent, he said.
There are many factors, including the storm’s exact track over the islands, that may change that forecast, so he said it will have to be watched closely for the next few days.
“I am afraid we are not going to get this resolved by this weekend,” Rogers said.
PHI Inc. (PHII:US) may begin evacuating personnel from offshore oil- and gas-production platforms and drilling rigs today, Richard Rovinelli, the chief administrative officer for the Lafayette, Louisiana-based helicopter company, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
“On the current calculated path, we expect that the U.S. Gulf will at least lose between 2 and 3 million barrels of crude production due to precautionary shutdowns, while oil imports will also be delayed,” Olivier Jakob, managing director of Zug, Switzerland-based Petromatrix, said in a report today.
Dan Kottlowski, head of AccuWeather Inc.’s hurricane center in State College, Pennsylvania, said yesterday he predicts the Republicans and others gathering in Tampa will see “thunderstorms and gusty winds, but the strongest part of the hurricane would be offshore.”
Tampa is the second-biggest metropolitan area in Florida, after Miami, with nearly 2.8 million people, Census data show. The Tampa Bay Times Forum, site of the gathering, is in a mandatory evacuation zone once storms reach 96 mph, a Category 2 on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, according to the Hillsborough County Hurricane Guide.
Florida Governor Rick Scott said yesterday that while it’s too soon to say where Isaac may make landfall, the state “must take every precaution.” Convention officials will decide whether to relocate, Scott said at a press briefing in Tallahassee, the state capital.
“There’s not an anticipation that there will be a cancellation,” Scott said.
Joyce, the 10th named storm of the season, weakened to a tropical depression, the hurricane center said in a separate advisory. The system was 1,100 miles east of the Leeward Islands and moving northwest at 14 mph. It had top winds of 35 mph and posed no immediate threat to land.
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