* Isaac strengthens near Haiti, threatens Gulf oil patch
* Heavy rains a huge threat to quake-ravaged, deforested
* At least 350,000 still living in camps years after quake
By Susana Ferreira
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 24 Tropical Storm Isaac
strengthened on Friday as its lashing rains took aim at
flood-prone Haiti, but it was not expected to become a hurricane
until it barreled into the Gulf of Mexico early next week.
On its current path, forecasters said Isaac would hit Cuba
and the southern tip of Florida before making landfall anywhere
from the Florida Panhandle in the northwestern part of the state
to Alabama and as far west as New Orleans.
Forecasters put the entire coast of south Florida under
tropical storm watch as of 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) on Friday.
But the biggest immediate concern was heavily deforested
Haiti, where the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the
full force of the storm was expected to be felt by Friday
Isaac comes as Republicans gather in Tampa, on Florida's
central Gulf coast, for Monday's start of their national
convention ahead of the November presidential election.
The convention is still due to proceed as planned but Gulf
of Mexico operators began shutting down offshore oil and gas
rigs on Friday ahead of the storm.
On Friday afternoon torrential rains began falling on the
Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with
Life-threatening flash-floods and mudslides, which are
common in Haiti, could add to the misery of about 350,000 people
still living in tent cities and camps after the January 2010
earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.
The NHC said Isaac was centered about 100 miles (160
km)south-southeast of the seaside Haitian capital Port-au-Prince
late Friday afternoon, packing top sustained winds of 65 miles
(100 km) per hour.
The storm was moving northwest at 16 mph (26 kph) and it was
expected to dump between 8 and 12 inches (20 to 30.5 cm) of rain
over parts of Haiti, with total accumulations of up to 20 inches
(51 cm) in some areas.
The storm prompted Haitian President Michel Martelly to
announce on Thursday night that he was cancelling a planned trip
"I known your worries," Martelly said in an address to the
nation. "I also know we're a strong people."
About 3,000 volunteers from the government's Civil
Protection office have been dispatched across Haiti, to warn
people about flood and landslide risks, and about 1,250 shelters
-- schools, churches or other community buildings -- have opened
their doors to house people seeking refuge from the storm.
But Red Cross officials said the number of shelters could be
grossly inadequate and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe
acknowledged Haiti had "limited means" to ensure public safety.
Red Cross and International Organization for Migration
representatives joined Martelly and other government officials
in trying to evacuate 8,000 people, including 2,500 sick and
disabled, from 18 tent camps in low-lying coastal areas of
Port-au-Prince on Friday.
"NOTHING WE CAN DO"
But Bradley Mellicker, head of disaster management for the
IOM, said many people refused to abandon their makeshift homes,
apparently due to fears of theft.
"There's a lot of people who are resisting because they are
scared of losing what little they have now," Mellicker said.
Many Haitians, most of whom scrape by on less than $1 per
day, consider disaster an inevitable part of life in the poorest
country in the Americas.
"We live under tents. If there's too much rain and wind,
water comes in. There's nothing we can do," said Nicholas
Absolouis, an unemployed 34-year-old mechanic at one camp for
homeless people on the northern edge of the chaotic capital.
"If he's coming, he's already on the way," added Juliette
Jean-Baptiste, 26, another resident of the camp. "Our tents leak
"We're not worried," said Olivier Oge, who was playing
dominoes with friends as wind kicked up the tarp over their
heads in Tapis Rouge, a sprawling camp for quake survivors near
a ravine on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.
When Isaac comes, "we'll still be playing until the pieces
fly away," he said.
"The next 24 hours will be critical for the population of
Haiti," said France Hurtubise of the International Federation of
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Haiti. "There are still
too many people living in the camps. There's a good chance that
those might be destroyed with the passage of the cyclone."
Flooding could also help rekindle a cholera epidemic in
Haiti, which has killed more than 7,500 people since the disease
first appeared in October 2010, foreign aid workers said.
Isaac has drawn especially close scrutiny because of the
Republican Party's convention, a four-day meeting during which
former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will receive the
party's presidential nomination.
Party officials insist the convention will go ahead, even if
they have to alter the schedule. But NHC meteorologist Rick
Danielson said Tampa could potentially be hit by coastal
flooding and driving winds or rain.
"There is still a full range of possible impacts on Tampa at
this point," he said.
The NHC is no longer forecasting Isaac to rev up to
hurricane force until Monday night or early Tuesday, long after
it crosses Haiti and Cuba.
Danielson said it was very hard to project intensity before
Isaac passes over mountainous Cuba on Saturday and Sunday and
enters the Florida Straits. But the Florida Keys, the island
chain off the southernmost part of the state, were definitely in
Florida has not been hit by a major hurricane since 2005,
and forecasts showed Isaac was not expected to strengthen beyond
weak Category 1, with top sustained wind speeds of about 85 mph