The ghosts of climactic – and political – calamities past stalked the Republican Party yesterday as its already foreshortened convention in Tampa risked being eclipsed by the gathering fury of Tropical Storm Isaac, which threatened to make a direct hit on New Orleans late tonight precisely seven years after Hurricane Katrina.
Happily for Mitt Romney and the organisers of the quadrennial nominating shindig, Isaac had slipped westwards in the Gulf of Mexico overnight delivering only a wet and windy slap to Tampa itself. Most of yesterday's planned events had already been scrapped but the show theoretically should begin in earnest today, ending on Thursday.
That New Orleans is now in the storm's sights is altogether less helpful, however. Depending on the storm's clout, landfall in the Mississippi late tonight and early tomorrow will surely syphon attention from the convention, a crucial stage to showcase the GOP ticket and persuade voters that Mr Romney is a human being after all and that, with running mate Paul Ryan at his side, he is the right man to deliver America from economic doldrums.
Republican officials are acutely aware also of the risks of being seen to throw a party here while a few hundred miles away Gulf Coast residents face mortal danger from the elements once again. No one of course is forgetting that Katrina is remembered in part for the bungling response of the last Republican president, George Bush. Even the expected fusillade of anti-Barack Obama firecrackers could seem out of place during a natural catastrophe.
States of emergency had been declared by the governors of Louisiana as well as of Mississippi and Alabama as Isaac's winds were set to intensify over the warm Gulf waters. More than 50,000 residents in St Charles parish near New Orleans were under evacuation orders. Forecasters said Isaac was likely to become a Category 1 hurricane (74-95mph winds) before making landfall, pulling back from earlier predictions of a Category 2 storm (96-110mph winds). That could change, however.
The threat of Isaac was clear as it battered Haiti and parts of Cuba over the weekend and tracked just west of Key West on Sunday night. A tropical storm becomes a hurricane when sustained winds exceed 74mph.
"Images of revelry by Republicans at a time of suffering by other Americans – no party wants those optics," noted Steve Schmidt, top aide to John McCain's 2008 campaign, whose own convention four years ago in Minneapolis was delayed one day when Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast. "You have terrible awareness of all that stuff."
The convention was set later yesterday to be gavelled briefly into session in the Tampa Times Forum, a downtown arena, with the firing up of a running digital national debt clock, but then suspended immediately until this afternoon. "This clock reminds every delegate and every American why we are here in Tampa – because America can and must do better," Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Comm-ittee, announced. "Every American's share of the national debt has increased by approximately $16,000 during the current administration."
Some asked if Isaac was a divine riposte to those on the right who in the past have suggested that natural calamities have been God's punishment to liberals. "Has God forsaken the Republican Party?" asked Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, noting that recent tribulations for the party have included a Senate candidate causing uproar with comments about rape and abortion, and tales of a conservative congressman skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee. "Even if you don't believe that God uses natural phenomena to express His will, it's difficult for mere mortals to explain what is happening to the GOP right now," Mr Milbank went on.