KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — Tropical Storm Isaac started pelting the Florida Keys with rain and strong winds on Sunday, and it could strengthen into a dangerous hurricane by the time it starts hitting the northern Gulf Coast in the coming days.
Exactly where Isaac would hit once it passed the Keys remained highly uncertain, with forecasters saying hurricane conditions could reach anywhere from the New Orleans metro area to the Florida Panhandle by Tuesday. And the storm is large: tropical storm conditions extend more than 200 miles from the storm’s center, meaning Isaac could cause significant damage even in places where it does not pass directly overhead.
Isaac has brought havoc to the Caribbean already, killing seven people in Haiti and downing trees and power lines in Cuba. And it had officials worried enough in Tampa that they shuffled around some plans for the Republican National Convention.
However, Isaac had yet to create a panic in South Florida, and it wasn’t expected to become a hurricane by the time it passed over the Florida Keys. In Miami Shores, some residents said they hadn’t even put up storm shutters. Edwin Reeder, 65, stopped by a gas station to pick up some drinks and snacks. He didn’t bother topping off his car’s half-full fuel tank.
Reeder said he hadn’t put up storm shutters, instead just clearing his gutters so all the water could drain. And while he didn’t stock up on canned goods for himself, he did buy some extra cat and dog food for his pets.
“This isn’t a storm,” he said. “It’s a rain storm.”
On Key West, locals followed time-worn storm preparedness rituals while awaiting the storm after Isaac swamped the Caribbean and shuffled plans for the Republican National Convention. Hundreds of flights were canceled Sunday as the storm bore down.
A steady line of cars moved north Saturday along the Overseas Highway, the only road linking the Florida Keys. Residents boarded up windows, laid down sandbags and shuttered businesses ahead of the approaching storm. Even Duval Street, Key West’s storied main drag, was subdued for a weekend, though not enough to stop music from playing or drinks from being poured.
“We’ll just catch every place that’s open,” said Ted Lamarche, a 48-year-old pizzeria owner visiting Key West to celebrate his anniversary with his wife, Deanna. They walked along on Duval Street, where a smattering of people still wandered even as many storefronts were boarded up and tourists sported ponchos and yellow slickers.
“Category None!” one man shouted in a show of optimism.
The Keys were bracing storm surge of up to 4 feet, strong winds and the possibility of tornadoes. The island chain’s two airports closed Saturday night, and volunteers and some residents began filing into shelters.
“This is a huge inconvenience,” said Dale Shelton, a 57-year-old retiree in Key West who was staying in a shelter.
Isaac has already left a trail of suffering across the Caribbean.
Haitians began to dig themselves out of the mud on Sunday, one day after Tropical Storm Isaac doused the Caribbean nation and killed eight people here and another two in neighboring Dominican Republic.
With a reported total of 10 deaths for the island of Hispaniola, which is shared by the two countries, the scale of devastation was less than many people had feared.
But the capital and countryside of disaster-prone Haiti did suffer sporadic flooding, fallen poles and scores of toppled tents that housed people who lost their homes in the massive 2010 earthquake.
Joseph Edgard Celestin of Haiti’s Civil Protection Office offered few details on the storm-related deaths, but said one man was swept away as he tried to cross a river in a village in the country’s north.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Office said in a separate report that a 51-year-old woman was killed in the southern coastal town of Marigot after a tree fell on her home. A 10-year-old girl was killed in the village of Thomazeau after a wall collapsed on her.
In neighboring Dominican Republic, police reported that two men were swept away by flooded rivers that burst their banks. One victim was identified as Pedro Peralta, a former mayor in Villa Altagracia, a town northwest of the capital of Santo Domingo. His body was recovered Sunday by rescuers on the banks of the Haina River.
Another male victim, whose identity was not disclosed, was swept away by the Yaguaza River, Dominican police said.
Across Haiti, the number of people evacuated due to flooding rose over the weekend. More than 14,000 people had left their homes and another 13,500 people were living in temporary shelters until Saturday night, the Civil Protection Office reported. Some 8,400 evacuees were in the country’s western department, the most populous and where the capital of Port-au-Prince is located.
The World Food Program had distributed two days of food to 8,300 of the people who had left their houses for 18 camps.
The Haitian government reported that a dozen houses were destroyed and another 269 damaged.
Impoverished Haiti is prone to flooding and mudslides because much of the country is heavily deforested and rainwater rushes down barren mountainsides. It’s not uncommon for storms to turn deadly; a storm in the Caribbean last year unleashed mudslides that killed more than 20 people in the capital.
In Fourgy, a hardscrabble neighborhood in the northern part of Port-au-Prince, residents used buckets and brooms to clean out mud from their homes and courtyards as chocolate-color flood waters from the nearby Grise River began to recede.
The water arrived early Saturday morning, rising up to the waist of an average adult, but by Sunday it had dropped to about shin high. Still, it was enough to destroy the few belongings of some people.
Rene Stevenson readily gave an inventory of possessions lost to the flood: bed, radio, TV set, plastic chairs.
“Everything’s totally lost,” fumed Stevenson, a 24-year-old cab driver with dried mud on his bare chest.
If mud caused anguish in Fourgy, wind was the source of despair down the street in Pwa Kongo neighborhood. Isaac blew down rows of tents and other temporary shelters people had lived since they lost their homes in the 2010 earthquake.
Displaced again, the several dozen occupants took their belongings and spent Saturday night sleeping on the wooden pews of a small church next door.
“There’s a church so we’re here,” said Arel Homme Derastel, a 32-year-old father of three. “All’s broken.”
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)