Isaac's focus turns to northern Gulf Coast

Evacuations ordered for portions of Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Escambia counties

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate said Monday that the federal disaster agency is ready to assist as Tropical Storm Isaac bears down on the northern Gulf coast on an course eerily similar to that of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.

Heavily criticized for its poor response to the devastating hurricane that hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, Fugate, the former head of Florida's Division of Emergency Management, said FEMA has addressed its shortcomings and is in a much better position to be of immediate assistance.

FEMA personnel are already on the ground -- staged at NAS Jacksonville and other points throughout the region -- and have been working to coordinate efforts before the storm makes landfall.

"The biggest thing we've learned is that we have to work together as a team," Fugate said of local, state and federal responders.

Fugate spoke with reporters via conference call Monday to provide updates on preparations for Isaac's landfall, now expected midweek. Forecasts have the storm making landfall in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana though its effects will felt hundreds of miles away.

"This is not a New Orleans storm," Fugate said. "This is a Gulf Coast storm…Everybody's focusing on New Orleans and they don't understand this threat is not a point. It's a large area."

Of chief concern in Florida is the potential for torrential rains in the already water-logged Panhandle and north central Florida -- parts of which are already under flood warnings. Isaac is a slow moving, relatively large storm system that will dump water before landfall and continue soaking the region after the center of the storm passes through.

"While the storm track tells us where the strongest winds will occur, remember that heavy rains can occur away from the big blow," Channel 4 hurricane expert George Winterling wrote on his Eye on the Storm blog.

Several bands of rain moved across the greater Jacksonville on Monday, with 1 to 2 inches of rainfall expected to accumulate.  Meteorologist Richard Nunn is forecasting a 60 percent chance of rain on Tuesday and Wednesday as well.

Gov. Rick Scott, who appeared at a breakfast meeting of Florida and South Carolina delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, said Isaac could cause big problems in the region that in recent years has been hit by the BP oil spill in 2010 and Tropical Storm Debbie earlier this year.

The storm could bring as much as 16 inches of rain in Pensacola and surrounding Escambia County, which may also experience tropical storm force winds for more than a day. Storm surge in the region could run three to six feet.

"The biggest concern now is the Panhandle,'' Scott said."The Panhandle is drenched."

Meanwhile, in Tampa, the roughly 50,000 people in the area for the convention woke up to a breezy, rainy morning, but little evidence of a tropical system. The sun even came out a few times as the day went on. Still, Republican leaders postponed official events until Tuesday, at least in part because of high winds and potential storm surge.

Isaac brought heavy rains to the Florida Keys during the early hours Monday, but Scott said there was minimal damage reported. At noon, more than 70,000 Florida Power & Light customers were without power.

Along the Panhandle, preparations were in full swing Monday morning. A mandatory evacuation is in place in Walton County for all residents living south of Highway 20 located in low lying areas.

Evacuation orders were also issued in portions of Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties. Included in that area were evacuation orders for Navarre Beach and Pensacola Beach.

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