PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Tropical Storm Isaac strengthened slightly as it spun toward the Dominican Republic and vulnerable Haiti on Friday, threatening to bring punishing rains but unlikely to gain enough steam to strike as a hurricane.
Forecasters now expect the storm to stay below hurricane force until it's in the Gulf of Mexico, staying to the west of Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention starts on Monday, though there is still an outside chance it could hit there.
Forecaster Eric Blake of the U.S. National Hurricane Center said it is "too early to know" the storm's exact course, though projections indicated the storm could make landfall near the Alabama-Mississippi border.
Isaac was expected to dump eight to 12 inches (20 to 30 centimeters) of rain on the island of Hispaniola that is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
"That kind of rain is going to cause some life-threatening flash floods and mudslides," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the Hurricane Center in Miami.
Isaac was centered about 175 miles (280 kilometers) south-southwest of Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, on Friday morning, and its maximum sustained winds had increased to near 50 mph (80 kph). It was moving west near 15 mph (24 kph), according to the Hurricane Center.
Tropical force winds extend nearly 200 miles (321 kilometers) beyond the storm's center.
In flood-prone Haiti, where the storm's eye is likely to blow ashore late Friday, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe urged people to avoid crossing rivers, to tape their windows, and to stay calm, saying "panic creates more problems."
Lamothe and other Haitian officials said the government had set aside about $50,000 in emergency funds and had buses and 32 boats on standby for evacuations.
But among many Haitians, the notion of disaster preparedness in a country where most people get by on about $2 a day was met with a shrug.
"We don't have houses that can bear a hurricane," said Jeanette Lauredan, who lives in a tent camp in the crowded Delmas district of Port-au-Prince.
About 400,000 people remain in settlement camps comprised of shacks and tarps in the wake of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake.
In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, people went to work as usual, but commercial banks were scheduled to close at noon.
So far, Isaac itself had caused no reported injuries or deaths, but police in Puerto Rico said a 75-year-old woman died near the capital of San Juan on Wednesday when she fell off a balcony while filling a drum with water in preparation for the storm.
In the Dominican Republic, authorities began to evacuate people from low-lying areas but encountered resistance.
"Nobody wants to leave their homes for fear they'll get robbed," said Francisco Mateo, community leader of the impoverished La Cienaga neighborhood in Santo Domingo, the capital.
Blake, the U.S. forecaster, said that while Isaac hadn't strengthened much in the Caribbean, it could gain power as it moves away from Cuba. "When it moves back over water, it has a chance to restrengthen," he said.
Organizers of next week's Republican National Convention in Tampa said they were working closely with state and federal authorities on monitoring storm as they prepared for the arrival of 70,000 delegates, journalists and protesters, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott said there were no plans to cancel the convention.
Out in the eastern Atlantic, another tropical storm, Joyce, was downgraded to a tropical depression late Thursday, and posed no threat to land. The hurricane center in Miami said Joyce had maximum sustained winds of 35 mph (55 kph) and that it was becoming disorganized.
Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, contributed to this report.
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