Tampa Dodges Hurricane as GOP Convention Opens

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Tampa, FL – The biggest convention in Tampa in years experienced only a minor delay this week when a tropical storm veered away from Florida as the Republican National Convention got under way.

The Republican National Committee cancelled the bulk of Monday’s proceedings and basically opened a day late out of a healthy fear of Tropical Storm Isaac, which drifted to the west as it made its way north during the last week in August and zeroed in on the states along the northern Gulf Coast.

Convention organizers decided to hunker down on Monday rather than force delegates to navigate the storm-swept streets of Tampa in shuttle buses and then stand outside in a driving rain waiting to clear the security checkpoints. The wind was too strong to allow the use of outdoor canopies to keep attendees dry.

The convention schedule for Tuesday remained intact, including an appearance at the speaker’s podium by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and Bev Gray, the president and CEO of Exhibit Edge, an exhibit designer in Chantilly that hosted a campaign appearance by presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the Spring.

There were media reports of convention delegates postponing travel to Tampa until the weather situation was clearer. Otherwise, the estimated 50,000 people in town for the convention were told they would have to endure the wind, rain and potential power outages with everyone else in the city.

“When sustained winds reach 40 mph, the area bridges are closed to traffic,” said Rick Hamilton, convention center and tourism director for the Tampa Convention Center.

Hamilton told Trade Show Executive that had the center been closed, the order would have come from the city’s emergency managers. “We would batten down and evacuate the center if we were given the word from the Emergency Operations Center,” he said.

Hamilton said the building could see flooding from a Category 1 hurricane or greater, particularly at high tide. The Tampa Convention Center, which has 200,000 square feet of prime exhibit space, is more at risk from storm surge than wind due to its location on Tampa Bay.

“We could have some water in the venue and would have to batten down to protect the building and equipment,” Hamilton said.

Meanwhile, Issac remained a tropical storm as it moved northwest through the Gulf but was expected to reach hurricane strength before making landfall roughly along the Mississippi-Louisiana state line.

New Orleans was under a hurricane warning by Monday and was expecting Isaac to arrive as a Category 2 hurricane early Wednesday. City officials reminded residents there would be no “shelter of last resort” as had been the case in 2005 when thousands of terrified Big Easy residents rode out Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.

The National Hurricane Center Monday estimated the track for Issac would also put the storm ashore not far from the Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center in Biloxi. The convention center has 129,000 square feet of prime space and a beachfront location that is great for visitors, except during hurricane season.

Coliseum staff went home early Monday and the operations team put its emergency preparations plan into effect. The Labor Day holiday may have spared the center from seeing any events cancelled. The Coliseum was dark for the entire week and the next event on the calendar was a dog show opening September 6. The New Orleans center was also quiet heading into Labor Day and had the AARP Life@50+ Event & Expo running September 20-22.

Reach Rick Hamilton at (813) 274-5624 or rick.hamilton@tampaconventioncenter.com; Bill Holmes, executive director, Mississippi Coast Coliseum & Convention Center, at (228) 594-3700 or bholmes@mscoastcoliseum.com; Bob Johnson, general manager of New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, at (504) 582-3000 or rjohnson@mccno.com