News Column

Party Gets Started; Isaac Veers West

Aug 27, 2012

Ray Reyes

Tropical Storm Isaac's threat to Tampa lessened by the hour Sunday, but its biggest impact might be seen on downtown streets today.

Downtown Tampa was supposed to have been abuzz with politicians and protesters. But RNC organizers' decision to cancel opening day because of the storm threat has left delegates and politicians looking for ways to kill time -- and protesters with little competition for the public and media's attention.

"We're certainly not scared of the weather," said Corey Uhl, a protester who plans to march to the Forum today, where GOP delegates will convene briefly then recess until Tuesday.

Republican officials say cutting a day from the four-day convention won't have much of an impact.

"Even though the days will be abbreviated, I absolutely believe we'll be able to get our message out," said Russ Schriefer, senior adviser for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Added Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus: "We're moving forward, but we are going to be nimble."

Uhl, a member of the Coalition to March on the RNC, said he expects at least 1,000 people to gather at Perry Harvey Sr. Park at 10 a.m. before the crowd marches to the Forum. Likewise, the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign march is scheduled to go ahead as planned at 3 p.m.

"We're moving ahead with the march," he said.

Donald Butner said he's been sleeping at the Occupy camp in Tampa for a few months. The weather, he says, won't deter him from his protest plans.

"We're here baby, rain or shine," Butner, 52, said. "The weather is going to do what it is going to do."

What Isaac is expected to do today is hurl out squalls bringing heavy rain and 40 mph wind gusts toward Tampa, News Channel 8 chief meteorologist Steve Jerve said.

Isaac's projected path kept inching westward Sunday, each update taking it farther away from Tampa. Sometime before dawn today, the storm should have come within about 200 miles of Tampa Bay -- the closest it will get to here, said Ernie Jillson, forecaster for the National Weather Service.

Even after Isaac passes, though, storm bands will blanket Florida for the next 24 hours.

"I wouldn't count on very much sunshine," Jillson said. "It's such a large storm. Even as it moves away, we'll still get showers and storms all the way to the Bahamas."

Isaac is projected to become a Category 2 hurricane tonight, as it swirls toward the Mississippi-Louisiana border, he said.

The threat of Isaac prompted Gov. Rick Scott to warn delegates on the Pinellas County side of the bay to stay put and not cross one of the three bridges into Tampa.

Thousands of delegates to the Republican National Convention are staying in beachfront hotels in Pinellas.

"If you're staying close to the beach, stay close to the beach," Scott said Sunday outside of the emergency operations center in Tampa. "Don't venture onto the Tampa side because you don't know what's going to happen as far as your ability to get home."

Despite the shift in the nation's focus from the GOP event to the storm, Scott isn't worried about negative publicity.

"What they're going to find out this week is that we know how to deal with hurricanes," he said. "We're prepared; this is a state that knows how to deal with these things. On top of that, we're the best hospitality state around. We have 87 million tourists here a year, we know how to have conventions, we know how to have large events, and we're going to do a great job."

Meantime, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn assured citizens, delegates and the watching world that the RNC show will go on even though the storm already has caused a hiccup in some well-laid plans.

"This is obviously in an interesting time," Buckhorn said. "We are hosting what will be the second-most-viewed television event in the entire world ... at the same time managing a potential hurricane as well."

The mayor wasn't concerned about Isaac giving the city's image a black eye.

"I can control a lot of things as mayor," he said. "The weather isn't one of them. It is what it is. We will be judged critically on how we handle it."

The approaching storm forced workers to undo some of their labor from earlier in the week. Crews on Sunday disassembled a massive tent city for convention concerts and VIPs. A Lynyrd Skynyrd concert Sunday night was canceled, and others still could be, depending on the weather.

"The main tent can withstand 90 mph winds, but we want everyone to be safe," said Rob Jennings, president of American Event Consulting, which built a massive entertainment village near the Forum for concerts with Kid Rock, Journey and others.

The worsening weather Sunday didn't deter demonstrators, who protested outside Sunday night's GOP kick-off party at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

On Sunday afternoon, 200 protesters gathered in Lykes Gaslight Park in downtown Tampa; about half the crowd marched to the Bank of America building, where they put up stickers and wrote messages with chalk, police said.

The march took place without a permit. Officers asked the group to leave, and the crowd dispersed from outside the bank building without incident, police said.

Hours later, Occupy demonstrators returned to the park, hauling out giant blocks of ice that spelled out the words "middle class," which melted quickly during the warm, rainy day.

Source: (c)2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services

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