Even if Tropical Storm Isaac doesn't upend the Republican National Convention schedule in Tampa next week, the storm could still force a shakeup of security plans.
About half of the officers expected to be sent to Tampa come from other parts of Florida and some could be forced to stay home for the storm, authorities said Thursday.
"We're in a situation right now where we don't know what's going to happen," Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said. "My primary concern right now is that we will lose resources."
Gee said some agencies, especially in South Florida, might decide not to send officers to Tampa if the storm threatens their areas. "As things change, they might have to prioritize," he said.
Gee's agency is in charge of the county where the convention will take place. The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office is providing the bulk of the staffing for the event because it is the largest agency in the area and also oversees the county jail. The Tampa police department is the other main agency handling security outside of the convention hall. The Secret Service is in charge of everything inside the convention hall.
More than 3,500 officers from 59 law enforcement agencies from around the state are scheduled to come to Tampa to patrol the streets. About half would come from outside Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa. About 1,700 National Guard troops already were expected to help with patrols. Gee said the number could increase if other law enforcement agencies don't end up sending officers.
"Isaac is a unique storm in this regard, it has the potential to threaten a major convention, designated a special national security event," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said. "That's why I have convened local, state, federal and conventional officials for twice daily briefings."
On Thursday, Isaac was still hundreds of miles from the tip of Florida with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph. Forecasters warned there was still a great deal of uncertainty with Isaac, and it could miss the state altogether. Still, the most recent forecast had Isaac strengthening into a hurricane and heading toward South Florida, arriving about Monday, as the convention opens for nearly a week of parties, speeches and other related events culminating with the nomination of Mitt Romney for president.
Scott said he did not expect the convention to be canceled. Convention officials would make the final decision, but would work closely with local and state authorities, Scott said.
Convention and Republican National Convention officials said Thursday they are in regular contact with Scott, the National Weather Service and emergency officials as they track the storm.
"We will continue to work closely with them and federal officials to monitor the storm and discuss any impact it might have on the Tampa area and the state of Florida. We continue to move forward with our planning and look forward to a successful convention," said the convention's CEO, William Harris, in a statement.
Scott also said he had directed state Emergency Operations Director Brian Coons to activate the state's Emergency Operations Center. He said the possibility of a hurricane had been taken into account in the early planning stages for the convention.
"These officials have been working together to plan the convention for the past 18 months, the possibility for a hurricane has been part of that planning process," the governor said. "All that's required for those plans to be activated is for there to be a hurricane and hopefully that won't happen."
When a tropical storm raked the Tampa Bay area in June, thousands of homes and businesses lost power, tornadoes spun off and streets and bridges were closed as the storm was blamed for seven deaths statewide. It's still too early to say where Isaac will end up, but officials are closely watching the storm and say they're ready to make any decisions, if needed, about evacuations or cancellations as 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters descend on the city.
"Public safety will always trump politics," Tampa Mayor Bob Buck horn said. "And so my job, and our job, if we move into that mode, is to make sure we get people out of harm's way. I don't care whether they're anarchists or they're delegates."
Back in 2008, Hurricane Gustav’s approach toward New Orleans forced the cancellation of some events at the Republican convention in Minneapolis, including Sept. 1 speeches by President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. Joe Lieberman, NBC News reported. Sen. John McCain, then the GOP’s presidential candidate, chartered a jet for Gulf Coast delegates to return home. The storm ultimately spared New Orleans when it came ashore as a Category 2 hurricane.
Nebraska GOP Executive Director Jordan Migraine said there was no consternation from any of the delegates or guests prepared to head south. After all, he said Nebraskans are used to dealing with severe weather and tornadoes every spring. "We can deal with extremes of every kind. I'm sure most of us would welcome a tropical storm as a new experience," Migraine said. "We're ready to ride it out."
Pat Rogers, a committeeman in New Mexico who is already in Tampa for early meetings, said most delegates from his state would arrive Saturday before the storm.
"Clearly they are a little concerned," he said, before joking "that we have seen more rain in one day than we get in a year."
Tampa's geography has posed logistical challenges from the outset, including how people would get around a downtown that is only about 571 acres — or less than 1 square-mile — and is bordered by interstates and rivers, and punctuated with restaurants, cafes and offices. As many as 400 air-conditioned buses are expected to shuttle delegates and other visitors from their hotels on both sides of the bay to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the downtown hockey arena hosting the festivities.
Any evacuation orders for the arena, where Romney will give his acceptance speech, would depend on a variety of factors, and would most likely not be made simply because a Category 1 storm, with winds of 74 mph, was approaching, officials said. Some visitors may not even be staying in would-be evacuation zones. Hotels have been booked 20 miles or more from downtown Tampa.
Debra Sue Washes, spokeswoman for Tampa Fire Rescue, said the city will provide buses for people to get to shelters and she hoped protesters, especially those who are camping, would take advantage of any offers of help.
"If we call for an evacuation, are we going to require an evacuation and arrest them? No we're going to offer the opportunity for their safety," she said.
The last hurricane to strike Tampa was Hurricane Jeanne in 2004. The Category 1 storm moved across the state toward Tampa, weakening along the way. It still knocked down trees and power lines, and damaged buildings. Three people were killed, but none in the Tampa Bay area.
Director of meteorology at Weather Underground, Jeff Masters, said based off the latest forecasts and computer models, there was a 3 percent chance of needing to evacuate the arena hosting the convention. There was 9 percent chance of Tampa experiencing tropical storm-force winds of at least 39 mph when the convention begins.
"Those odds are probably going to rise," he said.