Isaac gave South Floridians a stormy Sunday night but resolutely remained a Tropical Storm, even in the Florida Keys, saving its wallop for somewhere along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
The National Hurricane Center’s 8 p.m. advisory showed the center of Isaac moving into the southeastern Gulf of Mexico, hours after it took a slight shift west to spare South Florida a more severe storm. The storm actually dipped a bit in strength of sustained winds to 60 mph as it skirted Key West in the late afternoon.
Mainland South Florida got some powerful gusts — 64 mph was recorded at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale — but the strongest part of the storm really only impacted the Lower Keys and it, too, was slightly weaker than expected.
Outside Key West’s ramshackle inside-outside Schooner Wharf Bar, a bearded bicyclist pedaled by, wearing a rain poncho and passing the word.
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“It’s not a hurricane,” the cyclist called out. “It’s a windy day in paradise.”
The Hurricane Center predicted the storm would strengthen as it moved north into the Gulf of Mexico, with tracks predicting it would reach hurricane strength late Monday or early Tuesday, and placed the coast from New Orleans to Destin, Fla., under a hurricane warning.
A Flood Watch remained in effect across all of South Florida, the National Weather Service said in its 8 p.m. report. It would continue through Monday evening, the NWS said, because Isaac’s rain bands would continue throughout the night. “Additional rainfall amounts of 1 to 3 inches are possible tonight into Monday, which can lead to some flooding over South Florida,” the 8 p.m. NWS advisory said.
The storm left power outages in its wake: In Miami-Dade, 9,730 customers were without power at 10 p.m. Sunday, Florida Power & Light reported on its website. In Broward, 6,250 customers were without power and 2,300 Palm Beach residents lost electricity, too.
With most schools closed on Monday, South Floridians were advised to head out cautiously, if at all, so city workers could clean up debris and check basic services that were shut down for the storm on Sunday.
Tri-Rail, for example, announced no service Monday, time for engineers to do track inspections and maintenance in order to resume service on Tuesday.
“We always have people get injured or killed post-storm,” Broward Emergency Operations Director Chuck Lanza said Sunday afternoon, urging people to stay inside.
He reminded pedestrians to keep clear of puddles and motorists to be extra cautious on the soaked and debris-strewn roadways. “If you can stay home and do things around the house, that’s the best idea,” he advised Sunday afternoon, once Isaac had passed with no immediate reports of extreme flooding or severe damage.
Isaac also grounded some 765 flights in and out of South Florida: 555 at Miami International Airport and 160 flights at Fort Lauderdale. Key West’s airport was closed all day, forcing cancellation of about 50 flights.
The top wind speed record in the Keys was a 70 mph gust at the Smith Shoal Light about 11 miles northwest of Key West. Nothing stronger was expected as Isaac begins moving away from the island chain.
“It looks like it’s going to be diminishing impacts over the next couple of hours,” said Mike Rapsik, senior forecaster at the National Weather Service’s Key West office, just before 5 p.m. More squalls and rains bands could continue sweeping the island through the morning hours Monday.
Meantime, Isaac is expected to build strength once the storm enters the Gulf of Mexico. Warm water there made conditions favorable to help fuel the system, which so far has been poorly organized for much of its meandering journey across the Caribbean.
“It may take a little longer to become a hurricane but we’re still forecasting that,”’ said David Zelinsky, a meteorologist at NHC.
Isaac was forecast to be a dangerous Category 2, 105-mph hurricane as it approaches the Gulf Coast early Tuesday but Zelinsky cautioned that it could be stronger. Forecasting intensity is difficult, he said, and the average error, two days out, is a full category, plus or minus.
There was also considerable uncertainty about its path, with anywhere from coastal Louisiana, west of New Orleans, to the northeastern Florida Panhandle a possibility. “Two of our best performing models are at opposite ends of the spectrum,”’ said Zelinsky. “One turns it farther right toward Florida, the other goes left.”
Either way, both scenarios suggested a nasty couple of days in Tampa, scene of this year’s Republican National Convention — no direct hit but a possible storm surge and certainly rain and tropical force winds.
Further south, the Caribbean mostly weathered the storm well with the exception of Haiti, whose Office of Civil Protection confirmed seven deaths from Isaac — up from four deaths reported Saturday night. The deaths included a young man killed in a landslide in DonDon, a town in northern Haiti, and a 10-year-old girl who was killed when her home collapsed north of Port au Prince.
Miami Herald correspondent Jacqueline Charles reported signs of particular devastation in the tourist town of Jacmel, in Haiti’s southern peninsula. Houses were still standing. But people’s crops, their livelihoods, were washed away.
Isaac came to Miami-Dade and Broward counties earlier than anticipated on Sunday with wind gusts of 55 to 60 mph began at about 6:30 a.m., felling trees and blowing debris that have knocked out power to thousands of homes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
In addition to strong winds, Isaac is expected to dump four to eight inches of rain on South Florida, potentially flooding already saturated neighborhoods. Rough seas and storm surge also could spill over roads and docks.
In Broward’s coastal cities of Hallandale Beach and Hollywood, where low-lying neighborhoods are prone to flooding, officials continued to hand out sandbags on Sunday morning after filling thousands the day before.
MIAMI, BROWARD SPARED
In Miami-Dade, the threat of Isaac appeared to fizzle almost as soon as it rose.
The county’s Emergency Operations Center launched to Level 1 Sunday morning — its highest alert, with the center fully activated, and all agencies represented.
By noon, after the hurricane watch had been lifted for Miami-Dade, Mayor Carlos Gimenez was calling the county’s storm preparations a good exercise.
“We got prepared for the worst,’’ he said.
County crews will clean up on Monday, when non-essential employees have been given the day off, and it’s back to business on Tuesday, Gimenez said.
Bad weather was to blame for two fatalities on the roads Sunday morning, though no major emergencies were reported.
Three shelters throughout the county were open and had attracted 154 residents, most of them at Booker T. Washington and Robert Morgan high schools in south and central Miami-Dade. Also, the county had helped transport 292 residents to special needs centers around the county.
Miami leaders said they, too, are prepared for the worst.
“We believe we are going to experience lots of local flooding and strong winds,’’ Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said.
Regalado said city crews have set up pumps in flood-prone areas, such as Brickell. Portable pumps also are being readied.
“We have been preparing for this for months,’’ Regalado said.
Homestead officials appeared to breathe a sigh of relief that Isaac had not caused greater harm, particularly to the city’s significant agricultural industry.
“It looks like we’re dodging a bullet,’’ County Agricultural Manager Charles LaPradd said.
Winter is the busiest season for Homestead’s farmers, but there are still avocados in the groves. Heavy rains can kill avocado trees, and gusty winds can knock the fruit to the ground.
But the storm appeared to cause more damage to small business owners than to farmers.
At about noon, power went out along on Washington Avenue in downtown Homestead, where small shops cater to Mexican, Guatemalan and Central American customers.
About 400 homes and businesses were affected by the outage, among them La Michoacana ice cream shop.
Miguel Chavez, manager of the shop, said he expected losses in the thousands of dollars. The shop has a 10-by-8 foot freezer, as well as display cases, filled with ice cream, including flavors not typically found in stores, such as chili pepper.
“Today is a day the hurricane threatens our business,’’ Chavez said after the power outage. “You can’t fight against nature.’’
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has issued a state of emergency, expressing concern about the damage Isaac might do once it passes the Keys and fuels up in the warm Gulf of Mexico. It was forecast to grow into a Category 2 Hurricane with 100 mph winds as it approaches the Panhandle.
“The issue in the Panhandle is flooding,’’ said Scott, who noted that the region is still saturated from Tropical Storm Debby, which the region with rain in June.
Scott said he cleared his calendar through Tuesday, and will be in Tampa only on Sunday.
“We may need to help out other states,’’ he said.
Scott said he spoke with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney twice on Saturday. They talked about safety, emergency management measures and the situation in Tampa, he said.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade, said that a strengthening Isaac in the Gulf could pose a storm surge threat to Tampa Bay, where the Republican National Convention was scheduled to convene Monday in an area vulnerable to flooding. Events will now be delayed until Tuesday afternoon.
In Miami-Dade, officials also issued an evacuation order for people living in mobile homes, unsafe buildings and homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas. The Keys did the same, adding an order for boat dwellers to seek safer shelter.
Miami Herald staff writers Dan Chang, Alexandra Leon, Hannah Sampson, Carli Teproff, Charles Rabin, Julie K. Brown, Christina Veiga, Cammy Clark, Kathleen McGrory and Jacqueline Charles in Haiti contributed to this report.