Isaac’s outer bands are brushing South Florida with intermittent bursts of wind and rain as the storm chugs into the Florida Straits and heads toward the Keys, where it is expected to be at or near hurricane strength.
But in a sign of Isaac’s diminishing threat to Miami-Dade, the National Hurricane Center removed a hurricane watch for the county’s coastal communities.
A tornado watch and tropical storm warning remained in effect, however, as winds are expected to steadily worsen — spreading from the Keys north across Miami-Dade and Broward counties throughout the day and into early Monday morning.
Wind gusts of 55- to 60-miles-per hour began at about 6:30 a.m., felling trees and blowing debris that have knocked out power to thousands of homes in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
About 3,400 homes in Miami-Dade and another 1,400 in Broward are without power as of about 11 a.m. Sunday, according to Florida Power & Light.
In addition to strong winds, Isaac is expected to dump four to eight inches of rain on South Florida, potentially flooding already saturated neighborhoods. Rough seas and storm surge also could spill over roads and docks.
In Broward’s coastal cities of Hallandale and Hollywood, where low-lying neighborhoods are prone to flooding, officials continued to hand out sandbags on Sunday morning after filling thousands the day before.
As of 11 a.m., Isaac's winds remained at 65-miles-per-hour, but the storm is slowly organizing and a partial eyewall has formed.
Meteorologists expect the storm to be at or near Category 1 hurricane strength when it reaches the Florida Keys later Sunday.
Isaac is predicted to continue moving generally west-northwestward through Monday. Though it is too early to determine exactly where and when Isaac will make landfall along the Gulf Coast, a hurricane watch was posted from Morgan City, La., west of New Orleans all the way east across to near Apalachicola on the northeastern Florida Panhandle.
In Miami-Dade, bad weather was to blame for two fatalities on the roads on Sunday morning.
“We've got to get people off the streets,’’ said Miami-Dade Fire Capt. Louie Fernandez.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was expected to address the media at noon. Three shelters throughout the county were open and had attracted 133 residents, most of them in Central and North Dade. Also, the county had helped transport 392 residents to special needs patients to centers around the county.
In Key West, where 89 people had checked in to the Key West High School shelter as of 9 a.m., there was plenty of wind but little rain.
At the city’s Garrison Bight Marina, Pat Collins planned to ride out the storm in the lime green Sea Dog, which was built in 1957 and is reputed to be the oldest houseboat in Key West.
“We stripped everything from the outside and doubled up our lines,’’ said her husband, Bill Collins.
Bill will not be on the houseboat during the storm. He is a landscaper for the city and has to be on call to remove downed trees. But Patricia will be joined by friends Sandy and Jeff Fletcher, and their daughter, Conner.
The Collins' main concern for the storm is rising water levels, not necessarily wind.
“You always have to worry about the water,’’ Pat Collins said.
In the Upper Keys, most of the businesses along the Overseas Highway – the Keys’ Main Street – were shuttered Sunday morning.
But a few of the usual places were open.
At Mangrove’s Mike, a popular diner with a dolphin sculpture at the entrance, many locals, fishermen and the few tourists packed the place for a hearty breakfast.
The restaurant always closes at 2 p.m., which is just about the time tropical force winds are expected to begin hitting the keys. The storm is expected to make landfall in the Keys between 4 and 6 p.m., earlier than was previously forecast.
While the hurricane flags were flying at the Coast Guard station in Islamorada, the latest forecast says there is only a 10 percent chance the storm will reach enough intensity to become a hurricane when it hits the island chain
In anticipation of what could be the first hurricane strike Florida has seen in seven years, residents and government officials began preparing for Isaac on Saturday.
Miami-Dade and Broward counties ordered schools closed Monday, and private schools and universities followed the lead. Monroe County ordered schools closed through Tuesday. All three counties also opened shelters and urged residents to stay indoors until the storm passes sometime Monday morning.
Mass transit also is scheduled to shut down Sunday across South Florida.
Miami-Dade buses, Metromover and Metrorail will stop service at noon, and Broward County Transit and Tri-Rail have suspended bus service for the day.
The Port of Miami closed at 11 p.m. Saturday, and Port Everglades in Broward remains closed to waterside and landside operations, except for limited .
Major airports remained open early Sunday, though a tropical storm warning in Broward and a hurricane watch in much of Miami-Dade means airlines may cancel flights.
Nearly 500 flights were canceled at Miami International Airport on Sunday, and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport reported 135 flights canceled since Friday.
Tolls were lifted on Card Sound Road’s northbound lanes leaving the Keys on Sunday morning, though authorities are advising visitors and residents to remain indoors and ride out the storm.
In Miami Beach, at least 1,200 homes lost cable and internet service beginning at about 8:30 a.m., according to Atlantic Broadband representatives.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency, expressing concern about the damage Isaac might do once it passes the Keys and fuels up in the warm Gulf of Mexico. It was forecast to grow into a Category 2 Hurricane with 100 mph winds as it approaches the Panhandle on Tuesday.
Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in West Miami-Dade, said that a strengthening Isaac in the Gulf could pose a storm surge threat to Tampa Bay, where the Republican National Convention was scheduled to convene Monday in an area vulnerable to flooding. Events will now be delayed until Tuesday afternoon.
In Miami-Dade, officials also issued an evacuation order for people living in mobile homes, unsafe buildings and homes in low-lying, flood-prone areas. The Keys did the same, adding an order for boat dwellers to seek safer shelter.
Even though Broward is not under a hurricane warning, Broward’s director of emergency operations, Chuck Lanza, said Saturday that residents still need to be prepared for damaging tropical storm-force winds.
“I’m putting up my own shutters,” he said. “This is not something to take lightly.”
Though Isaac’s wind weren’t powerful, the huge storm still left a path of death and damage in the Caribbean.
In Haiti, the Office of Civil Protection confirmed seven deaths from Issac — up from four deaths reported Saturday night.
The new deaths, says spokesman Edgard Celestin, include a young man who died from a landslide in DonDon, a town in northern Haiti.
Elsewhere in Haiti, a home collapsed, killing a 10-year-old girl while flooding persisted in quake-battered Port-au-Prince, where the swollen Grise River inundated homes in the poverty-stricken Cite Soleil neighborhood.
At least two other deaths were reported and rain was still falling much of Saturday across the country, which is prone to deadly flash floods and mudslides.
Havana’s Meteorological Institute reported that the storm touched down in Maisi, a municipality east of Guantanamo Saturday afternoon. Radio Baracoa reported that two homes in the island’s easternmost city of 48,000 had collapsed.
But the storm’s drama fizzled at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where the military had scrapped this month’s Sept. 11 terror trial hearings.
“The bad weather did not materialize here,’’ detention center spokesman Robert Durand said.
Miami Herald staff writers Alexandra Leon, Hannah Sampson, Carli Teproff, Nadege Green, Charles Rabin, Julie K. Brown, Christina Viega, Juan Tamayo, Marc Caputo, Susan Cocking, Carol Rosenberg, David Ovalle and Jacqueline Charles in Haiti contributed to this report.