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Isaac churns in the Caribbean, threatens US Republican Convention

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 23 Aug 2012 06:36 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Isaac could become hurricane on Thursday night

* Tampa mayor plays down threat to Republican convention

* Storm cancels Guantanamo hearings in 9/11 case

By Tom Brown

MIAMI, Aug 23 (Reuters) - Tropical Storm Isaac spun over the Caribbean Sea and could become a hurricane on Thursday as it moves on a track that would put it off the coast of Florida on Monday, the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

As the center of Isaac moved away from the Leeward Islands, the storm prompted hurricane warnings in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Isaac may also threaten U.S. energy interests in the Gulf of Mexico, weather experts said. It was centered about 265 miles (425 km) southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on Thursday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

Isaac had top sustained winds of 45 miles per hour (75 kph), and could strengthen into a hurricane late on Thursday or Friday as it approaches the coast of Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and flood-prone Haiti, t he Miami-based center said.

Computer forecast models showed the storm moving west-northwest across the island on Friday, posing a severe risk of mudslides on Haiti's denuded hillsides.

Isaac was projected to weaken to a tropical storm over Haiti and then pass over Cuba before strengthening into a hurricane in the Florida Straits between Cuba and Florida. Its exact path after that remained uncertain.

Some computer models showed Isaac shifting slightly to the west and eventually moving parallel to Florida's western coastline. Others forecast the storm to make landfall in South Florida and then move inland.

At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba on Wednesday, authorities said Isaac forced the postponement of pretrial hearings that were to begin on Thursday for five prisoners accused of plotting the Sept. 11 attacks.

The U.S. military was preparing flights to evacuate the lawyers, paralegals, interpreters, journalists, rights monitors and family members of 9/11 victims who had traveled to the base for the hearings.

REPUBLICAN CONVENTION

Forecasters said it was too soon to gauge Isaac's potential impact on Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, where the Republican National Convention is to run from Monday through Thursday.

But Lixion Avila, a senior hurricane specialist at the hurricane center, suggested it would be foolish for anyone to think Tampa - where Republicans will nominate Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate - was out of harm's way.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said he was not really worried about Isaac, however.

"We're watching it. We're tracking it. I think we're going to be OK but we'll be prepared in the event it heads this way," Buckhorn told CNN on Wednesday.

"We hope it moves further away from us, but if it doesn't it's still going to be a great convention," he said.

Hurricane expert Jeff Masters of private forecaster Weather Underground said Tampa had a 9 percent chance of getting hit with tropical storm-force winds for a 24-hour period ending on the morning the Republican convention kicks off. But that could make the storm a non-event in terms of the convention itself.

"I put the odds of an evacuation occurring during the convention in the current situation at 3 percent," Masters said in his blog on the weatherunderground.com website.

ORANGE JUICE PRICE JUMP

Florida has not been hit by a major hurricane since 2005 and forecasts showed Isaac was not expected to strengthen beyond a weak Category 1, with top sustained wind speeds of about 80 mph (129 kph).

Analysts at Weather Insight, a Thomson Reuters company, said Isaac has a 50 percent probability of moving into the heart of the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production region.

The threat to Florida triggered a nearly 6 percent jump in orange juice prices on Wednesday as they surged to a six-week high in trading in New York.

Florida produces more than 75 percent of the U.S. orange crop and accounts for about 40 percent of the world's orange juice supply, making it key to volatility in orange juice futures trading.

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30, and August has traditionally been an active month. Friday is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, which caused widespread damage when it came barreling ashore south of Miami on Aug. 24, 1992.

On Thursday, Isaac is expected to pass just south of Puerto Rico. As the storm approached, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno declared a state of emergency, canceled classes, closed government agencies and activated the National Guard.

The government also froze prices on basic necessities such as food, batteries and other supplies and prepared emergency shelters at schools and other facilities.

Lurking behind Isaac, the hurricane center said another tropical depression formed over the eastern tropical Atlantic on Wednesday.

Located about 1045 miles (1,685 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands, it was packing winds of 35 mph (56 kph) and was expected to become a tropical storm on Thursday. Forecasts predicted it will eventually veer toward the open Atlantic and away from the Caribbean.

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