* Isaac forecast to become hurricane on Thursday
* Tampa mayor plays down threat to Republican Convention
* Storm cancels Guantanamo hearings in 9/11 case
By Tom Brown
MIAMI, Aug 22 Tropical Storm Isaac swirled over
the Caribbean on Wednesday and was forecast to become a
hurricane as it moved on a track that would put it off the coast
of Florida on Monday, the opening day of the Republican National
Convention in Tampa.
Isaac was already dumping heavy rains on the Leeward Islands
on Wednesday afternoon and hurricane watches were in effect for
many places, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British
Isaac could also potentially threaten U.S. energy interests
in the Gulf of Mexico, weather experts said. It was centered
about 75 miles (120 kilometres) east-northeast of Dominica early
on Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC)
Isaac had top sustained winds of 45 miles per hour (72 kph)
and was forecast to become a hurricane by Thursday, as it neared
the coast of Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican
Republic and flood-prone Haiti. Computer forecast models showed
the storm moving west-northwest across the island early Friday.
There was still a lot of uncertainty about the storm's path
after its projected passage over Cuba on Saturday and Sunday.
But computer models showed it making landfall somewhere in South
Florida by late Sunday or early Monday.
At the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in southeast Cuba on
Wednesday, authorities said Isaac had 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 evacuation flights for
Thursday for the lawyers, paralegals, interpreters, journalists,
rights monitors and family members of 9/11 victims who had
traveled to the base for the hearings.
Forecasters said it is far too soon to gauge Isaac's
potential impact on Tampa on Florida's Gulf Coast, where the
Republican Convention is set to run from Monday through
But Lixion Avila, a senior hurricane specialist at the
Miami-based NHC, 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.
"With the convention or without the convention, I can tell
you this is Aug. 22, hurricane season, and normally anywhere in
Florida or the Gulf of Mexico we should monitor any system that
forms," he said.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, said he wasn't 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.
"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.
OJ PRICE JUMP
Florida has not been hit by a major hurricane since 2005 and
no one is forecasting that Isaac will strengthen into anything
more than a weak Category 1, with top sustained wind speeds of
about 80 mph (129 kph).
Still, the threat to Florida triggered a jump in orange
juice prices on Wednesday, as they surged to a six-week high in
early 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
The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov.
30, and August has traditionally been an active month in the
six-month period. Friday is the 20th anniversary of Hurricane
Andrew, which caused widespread damage when it came barreling
ashore south of Miami on Aug. 24, 1992.
Lurking behind Isaac, the NHC said another tropical
depression formed over the eastern tropical Atlantic on
Wednesday, about 860 miles (1,385 km) west-southwest of the Cape
Verde Islands. It was packing winds of 35 mph (56 kph) and will
take the name Joyce if it becomes a tropical storm.