PORT-AU-PRINCE, Aug 23, 2012 (AFP) - Haiti hunkered down Friday as forecasters warned that Tropical Storm Isaac could drench the impoverished country still recovering from a killer earthquake.
At 1200 GMT, the center of Isaac was slowly gathering strength and speed some 280 kilometers (175 miles) southwest of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the Miami-based US National Hurricane Center said. Isaac was packing maximum sustained winds of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour and moving towards the west at 24 kilometers (15 miles) per hour, the NHC said. A hurricane watch was in effect for Haiti -- meaning that hurricane conditions are possible in the area -- and a tropical storm watch was in effect for the Dominican Republic. The fierce weather could spell misery for the roughly 400,000 residents of the western hemisphere's poorest country who live in makeshift squatter camps more than two years after a massive earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 people.
"They remain amongst the most vulnerable, should the storm hit the city," said Jean-Claude Mukadi, Haiti's national director for the humanitarian group World Vision. "Without a stable sanitation system or permanent housing, heavy rain and wind can create much larger problems like disease from water contamination," he added. Residents in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, and nearby Puerto Rico rushed to erect defenses against the expected wind and rain, set to churn on to Cuba and the southern United States by the weekend.
On the forecast track, Isaac's center will move near or over Hispaniola on Friday before heading to southeastern Cuba, home to the US naval base and "war on terror" prison at Guantanamo Bay, on Saturday. Isaac could reach Florida as a hurricane early next week, just in time for the Republican Party's National Convention. "Additional strengthening is forecast while the center remains over water," the NHC said. Four thousand Republican delegates from around the country will be in Tampa for four days to formally nominate former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 6 election. City officials have urged residents to prepare for the worst, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has expressed concern about the storm but insisted the show would go on. Isaac is approaching Florida as the state marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a maximum level category five storm that killed 26 people and left some $26 billion in material damage in 1992.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, while stressing that it was still early to predict Isaac's path, urged residents of the state to prepare for the worst, saying: "Every family should be prepared to sustain themselves for up to 72 hours." Isaac could dump up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain on Hispaniola, the NHC said, adding: "These rains could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides." Classes were canceled and hospitals boosted their staff levels in at-risk areas of the Dominican Republic. Authorities have urged people to prepare for floods, rising waters and mudslides due to heavy rains. Several hundred people were evacuated Thursday from Guantanamo, which houses the alleged September 11 plotters and other detainees from the so-called "war on terror." Legal proceedings against the alleged masterminds of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington were postponed as the base buckled down for the storm.
Meanwhile, forecasters said former tropical storm Joyce was now a weak tropical depression situated about 1,785 kilometers east of the Leeward Islands.