TAMPA — Miles of fencing, dozens of checkpoints, Secret Service agents, helicopters, Coast Guard boats, and swarms of police — on foot, horseback, and bicycles — gave downtown Tampa a quiet feeling of locked-down martial law Monday.
The convention’s business, except for a brief official opening Monday, was pushed back until Tuesday because of the threat posed by Tropical Storm Isaac. Hordes of curious delegates, however, still converged on heavily patrolled streets near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where the Republicans are gathering, to gawk, mingle, and dawdle.
Yet, the security lockdown, not the weather, was topic number one among many delegates.
“This is very frustrating to me, personally,” said Randy Duncan, 54, a delegate from Brookville, Kansas. “It’s nice to be protected, but it’s kind of a struggle. It’s like, how do we get there from here?”
“We’re really bored,” said alternate delegate Jim Chadwick, 77, of Boston, who is attending with his wife, Martha. “It’s not easy to get outside of the perimeter to go somewhere for dinner, but I think we’re going to try.”
The public was barred from a large waterfront area surrounding the forum and the nearby Tampa Bay Convention Center, where more than 15,000 members of the media had encamped.
Just outside the perimeter, office workers said, pedestrian traffic was a fraction of its normal weekday size. The storm threat kept many visitors close to their hotels, where they dined, drank, and chatted with other delegates instead of venturing downtown.
Isaac, which was barreling through the Gulf of Mexico Monday, barely grazed the city. Although the convention escaped the storm, a foot or more of rain and dangerous high winds were expected as the storm headed for landfall early Wednesday, possibly near New Orleans.
Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana canceled his plans to speak at the Republican National Convention.
President Obama was briefed by Craig Fugate, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who warned that Isaac could cut a wide swath. “I think people need to understand this is not a New Orleans storm,’’ Fugate said. “This is a Gulf Coast storm.”
National Guard troops were being mobilized in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia.
In New Orleans, officials waited for Isaac with confidence in the hurricane defenses that have been built there since Katrina devastated the city seven years ago.
“We believe that based on the information we have on the strength of this storm, there is nothing this storm will bring us that we are not capable of handling,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans said. “And I believe that notwithstanding the anxiety, everything will be OK.”
Anxiety of a different type pulsed through the streets of Tampa. The absence of tourists left the streets mainly to security personnel.
“It’s been like watching the police state descend,” said Ross Volenec, 24, who works at a law office across from Bank of America Plaza, on the fringe of the security zone. “A co-worker of mine has started smoking again because of the stress.”
As he spoke, a half-dozen state troopers walked up Tampa Street, past police who stood guard outside the Bank of America building. Near them, a dozen other officers on bicycles pedaled up and down sidewalks beside the nearly empty street.
Chadwick, the Boston visitor, lamented the need for blanket security.
“It’s frightening in that this is the world we live in today,” said Chadwick, sitting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel deep within the protected zone. “How we deteriorated into this security perimeter. I think it’s sad. It’s not American to me.”
One restaurant manager, a longtime Tampa resident, sighed as he looked at his sparse lunchtime business.
“I’m trying to be really nice with all of this, but it’s pretty sad,” said the manager, who asked not to be identified. “We want all of the delegates to enjoy themselves, but half of downtown is closed off. It’s my city, and I love it, but this kind of stuff makes me sick.”
Although thousands of delegates will be visiting Tampa, many for the first time, Mayor Bob Buckhorn acknowledged that city attractions such as the aquarium and museums will be off-limits for many visitors because of private parties and events.
The overall impact on Tampa “is probably a mixed bag,” Buckhorn said. “When it’s all said and done, the infusion of cash into the local marketplace will float a lot of boats.”
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