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South Florida braces for Isaac as Republicans postpone start of Tampa convention

Not yet a hurricane, Tropical Storm Isaac — after killing at least three in Haiti — churned Saturday evening along the north coast of Cuba toward Key West with the likelihood of a glancing blow to Miami-Dade.

With the threat that the storm could hit the Florida Keys as a possible Category 1 hurricane, Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency as the Republican National Convention announced that events in Tampa would be postponed until Tuesday.

In South Florida, local officials announced that schools will close Monday in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In the Lower Keys, which boasts a high transient population, at least 35 people had checked into a hurricane shelter at Key West High School on Saturday evening.

That included Delores Conway, who normally sleeps at a Stock Island homeless shelter. A hurricane brought Conway to Key West — after Wilma in 2005, she arrived looking for post-storm repair work.

The images of that storm were enough to convince her to play it safe at the shelter Saturday night.

“It looks like the safest place at the moment,” Conway said. “People showed me pictures they had taken where their houses were messed up and their cars were gone.”

Up in Miami-Dade, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez on Saturday afternoon issued an evacuation order for people living in mobile homes, unsafe buildings and homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas. The county opened three shelters in South Miami-Dade, and ordered non-essential county staff, about half of the 27,000 workforce, to remain at home Monday.

By 5 p.m. Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center, the storm — with winds of about 60 miles per hour — had strengthened little as it hugged the north coast of Cuba. But Isaac’s core is slated to be near hurricane strength by early afternoon Sunday as the system chugs near Key West.

The Florida Keys and Southwest Florida remain under a hurricane warning, with Miami-Dade under a hurricane watch. Tropical storm warnings and watches were extended up the east coast to Suwannee River.

The northern coastline of Cuba, on Saturday evening, was feeling the brunt of Isaac’s weather.

Havana’s Meteorological Institute reported that the storm touched down in Maisi, a municipality east of Guantanamo Saturday afternoon.

Radio Baracoa reported that two homes in the island’s eastern most city of 48,000 had collapsed and that the storm surge had thrown up a lot of debris on its seaside Malecon boulevard and nearby streets.

But the storm’s drama fizzled at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the military had scrapped this month’s Sept. 11 terror trial hearings and evacuated staff and observers from the crude compound called Camp Justice.

“The bad weather did not materialize here as tropical storm Isaac turned away and headed up the East coast of Cuba,” said Navy Capt. Robert Durand, the detention center spokesman.

The base did not report any damage or injuries in what amounted to a splash of summertime rain. Soldiers embarked on late-morning runs around the 45-square-mile base, while the base commander ordered the cafeterias reopened in time for 5:30 p.m. Saturday supper.

Forecasters believe the system’s jaunt over Cuba will be brief — and allow the storm more time to strengthen in the warm waters of the Florida Straits.

The sprawling storm could produce from six to 10 inches of rain and powerful gusts across much of South Florida, with tropical storm force winds beginning to buffet the Keys Sunday and building to hurricane force. Squalls that drenched South Florida overnight and Saturday morning weren’t part of Isaac but a hint of the dreary weather to come.

“It’s going to be a day to stay inside,” said Adam Futterman, a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Key West office. “Travel is strongly discouraged.’’

Scott also issued an executive order, a standard process prior to a storm or hurricane makes landfall to provide adequate time for cities and counties to begin preparing. It directs all state agencies, including the Florida National Guard, to provide any needed assistance to local governments.

The state’s emergency operations center is also fully activated.

Across South Florida, government workers were preparing. Some residents made last-minute trips to buy supplies, while others sought to keep some routine.

Charles Winick, his 8-year-old triplets in tow, visited the West Regional Library in Plantation Saturday for a weekly library trip.

“We weren’t going to let it stop us,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it is going to hit us.”

In Homestead — ground zero for Hurricane Andrew two decades ago — city officials set up two self-service sandbag stations. The city will provide a mound of sand at each of the stations and empty bags. The sandbag stations will be located at Harris Field Park, 1034 NE 8 St., and Roby George Park, 975 SW 4th St.

Down in Monroe, shelters opened at 2 p.m. Saturday as the sheriff’s office urged tourists to evacuate the island chain. As weather was worsening— with tropical storm-force winds likely to last the island early Sunday morning — Key West International Airport was slated to close at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Frank Gambino, of Marathon pool-service company, is concerned about flooding. Back in 2005, the morning after Hurricane Wilma hit, storm surge in the Keys reached nine feet.

“I’m making sure I get everything off the floor in case we get some localized flooding,” Gambino said. “We don’t plan on working until Tuesday at least. But it all depends on the severity of the storm.”

Down U.S. 1, Forest Tek Lumber also was busy, but plywood wasn’t flying off the shelves. Most residents in the Keys already have storm shutters and were just in need of shutter clips or wing nuts to fasten them. Many Keys homeowners also have high impact windows and glass, to help with insurance rates and peace of mind.

“It’s not as busy as it used to be when people weren’t as prepared,” said Mike Rundgren, contract manager for Forest Tek. “But we do have quite a few last minute people here for batteries and flashlights.”

Across the Caribbean, Haiti appeared to have been saved from the worst of Isaac but flooding persisted in places including a quake-battered Port-au-Prince. An overflowing Grise River, which begins in Petionville, flooded the road leading to the U.S. Embassy and left scores of homes in Cite Soleil near Route 9 underwater.

Residents waded through knee-high water as streets and parking lots turned into a mucky-brown river.

“I wasn’t able to save anything; everything’s gone,” a distraught resident, Mrs. Marc Henri-Louis, cried as she stood along the street watching her flooded house.

A few feet away, a group of young men loitered a USAID depot, stealing bags of beans.

In Zorange, where hundreds of government-constructed houses for quake victims remain empty, thieves walked around with hammers stealing doors and tin sheeting off houses.

These were isolated incidents. Haitian officials, which responded quickly to calls for help through the night, warned Haitians to remain indoors, stay off bridges and do not cross rivers.

At least three were dead, according to Haitian and U.N. officials.

In Jacmel, southwest of the capital, a falling tree killed a woman while in the Artibonite Valley in Northwest Haiti, a 7-year-old died of electrocution. Just north of Port-au-Prince, a collapsing wall killed a 10-year-old girl.

Miami Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles in Haiti; Cammy Clark in the Keys; Christina Veiga, Ina Paiva Cordle, Frances Robles, Juan Tamayo, Laura Isensee, Carli Teproff and Charles Rabin in Miami; and Toluse Olorunnipa and Times/Herald staff writer Brittany Alana Davis in Tallahassee and Larry Kahn from The Keynoter contributed to this report.