Isaac leaves 2 dead in Haiti, moves on to Cuba and eventually Florida
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CNN) -- Tropical Storm Isaac left at least two people dead Saturday in Haiti after pounding camps where hundreds of thousands of people live in tents and knocking out power to most of the country.
Isaac then headed on to Cuba, hugging that island's northern coast on Saturday afternoon. Rain and some flooding were reported Saturday in Cuba, though the storm appeared to be moving in a northwest direction away from land.
From there, the system is expected to move toward Florida and get even stronger as it turns into a hurricane, just ahead of Monday's start of the Republican National Convention convention in Tampa.
As fervent preparations continue to be made from the Florida Keys all the way up the state's Gulf Coast, authorities in Haiti were busy Saturday assessing the damage that Isaac had already caused and braced for more potential problems.
The impoverished nation is still recovering from a devastating earthquake more than two years ago, and its challenges are compounded by the fact it is led by a relatively new government with limited resources. All that said, the top U.N. humanitarian official in the nation praised the initial response efforts.
"So far, I think we're faring reasonably well in our response," Kevin Kennedy told CNN on Saturday afternoon, referring to the efforts led by the Haitian government and assisted by U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations.
Haitian radio reported that the worst damage was in the country's southeast.
Heavy rain and strong winds persisting into the morning hours caused visible damage to trees and houses in the city of Jacmel, on Haiti's southern coast, and knocked out power. As many as 1,500 of the city's residents took refuge in a school serving as a shelter.
Jacmel Mayor Hugues Paul confirmed at least one death on the outskirts of his city, voicing fears that more deaths will be reported.
A 10-year-old girl also died when a wall fell on her house in Thomazeau, near Port-au-Prince, the country's civil protection agency said.
At the Mega IV camp, where 8,000 Haitians live in makeshift shelters, fallen trees and flooding damaged hundreds of tents. Almost no one had evacuated the camp before the storm, and authorities were searching the camp tent by tent looking for victims.
At another camp, Canaan, half the tents were blown away, according to an official statement on the radio.
Haiti's national electricity supplier said that 30 out of the country's 32 electricity grids are down. The nation's main airport closed for a time, but had reopened by late Saturday afternoon, according to Rachel Brumbaugh, operations manager in Haiti for the Christian humanitarian organization World Vision.
In Port-au-Prince, people were being evacuated to areas behind the presidential palace and also to a stadium. Power was out at the Bernard Mevs Hospital in the nation's capital, which has been operating on a generator since just before midnight, according to Scott Gillenwater of the Project Medishare, which provides services at the hospital.
Rainfall accumulations of 8 to 12 inches are expected, with up to 20 inches possible in portions of Hispaniola -- the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Kennedy pointed out the prospect of another humanitarian disaster would have been much worse right after the 2010 earthquake, when about 1.5 million people were living in about 1,500 makeshift camps. Today, he said that figure is closer to 400,000.
Like the U.N. official, Brumbaugh from World Vision credited the government and outside agencies for their work in describing the preparatory and response efforts as "a huge improvement" over what's happened in the past.
But Haiti may not be out of the woods yet, with the possibility of even more rain falling into Saturday night causing a host of problems along the coast and in populated areas downhill from mountains.
"We could possibly get another 10 inches and, should that happen, we'd be very concerned about flooding in the low-lying areas and those places adjacent to the sea," Kennedy said.
Water levels along the Grey River in Port-au-Prince are already "at their breaking point," and more rain could cause them to overflow their banks and flood surrounding areas, Brumbaugh said.
In Jacmel, residents fear that large amounts of rainfall may cause mudslides, runoff and severe flooding as it did several years ago.
"I'm very worried about the water coming off the mountains and that the city fills up like a sink," said Paul, the city's mayor.
As of 5 p.m. ET, Isaac -- with maximum sustained winds of 60 mph -- was centered 120 miles east of Camaguey on the northern coast of eastern Cuba, and moving northwest at 21 mph, according to the Miami-based National Hurricane Center.
Isaac's eye will move near or over eastern Cuba on Saturday, the center said, and then should be near or over the central part of the country by nightfall.
Cuban officials reported some storm surge and flooding from rain in far eastern Cuba, and about 200 people were said to be in shelters in the town of Baracoa. But so far no major damage or injuries were reported. Gusts of wind also were being felt in Havana.
After passing Cuba and getting back out over open water, Isaac is forecast to gain strength as it bears down on the Florida Keys on Sunday, the center said. By then, it may be a hurricane.
Cuba issued a tropical storm warning for its eastern provinces, and the Bahamian government put Andros Island under a hurricane watch, the National Hurricane Center said.
A hurricane watch was issued early Saturday for Florida's east coast, from Golden Beach to points south including Miami, while a hurricane warning was issued for the Florida Keys, the west coast of Florida, from Bonita Beach south and Florida Bay, according to the hurricane center.
A watch means hurricane conditions are possible, and a warning means that hurricane conditions are expected.
Other parts of Florida -- as well as Haiti, much of the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos -- were under a tropical storm warning late Saturday afternoon.
"It has been a fortunate seven years since Wilma hit Florida," National Hurricane Center Director Rick Knabb said, referring to the last hurricane to make landfall in the state. "The luck is going to run out at some point."
Gov. Rick Scott said he'd declared a state of emergency for Florida, which he said is "standard protocol" to ensure a well-coordinated response with local, state and federal agencies.
He also said he has had conversations with organizers of the Republican National Convention, saying it would be up to them to decide the event's fate. Local governments will make decisions as to whether people in their areas need to evacuate, the governor added.
Big storms like these are nothing to Floridians, Scott pointed out, and people are already working to get ahead of this one.
"This is a state that has dealt with hurricanes forever," he told reporters Saturday in Broward County. "We are a state that we know we have to get prepared for hurricanes."
In Key West, the southernmost point in the United States and likely the first part of the Sunshine State to be hit by Isaac, Mayor Craig Cates told CNN on Saturday that "we're ready (and) we're confident that it's not going to be really bad."
Many storefront windows were boarded up, while hotels were largely vacant even though no orders or recommendations for evacuations had been issued.
Some in Key West, though, insisted they were ready and eager to ride out the storm.
"We came down here to have a good time, we're not going to let a hurricane get in the way," Paul Cannella, a tourist from Chicago who is visiting the Keys. "I am a big believer in lifetime experiences, (and) I've heard about hurricane parties, so we're going to have some fun with it."