Tropical Storm Isaac churned toward Hispaniola, a crossing expected Friday that could determine the potential impact on Florida but almost certainly will prove painful for Haiti, where hundreds of thousands remain homeless in the earthquake-shattered capital.
Almost three years after the country's worst natural disaster, Isaac loomed on the horizon -- more potential misery for a poor nation where floods have killed scores over the past decade.
"They tell us to remain vigilant and prepare to evacuate. But where do you go?" asked Anilia Paul, 54, a mother of six, standing under a tattered structure that doubles as a welcome center and classroom in the Tapis Vert (Green Rug) tent city. "We have 300 families living inside here. They have no place to go."
Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center said the tropical storm, despite its massive size, remained disorganized, barely over the minimum wind standard for tropical storms of 40 mph. But they still expected Isaac to strengthen -- at least before it hits southern Haiti sometime Friday afternoon.
At 5 a.m. Friday, Isaac was located about 165 miles south of the Dominican Republic and moving west at 15 mph. Maximum sustained winds were 45 mph with higher gusts.
The forecast also reflected a continuing trend from computer models nudging Isaac west, with the center of the latest track now crossing near Key West sometime early Monday, then keeping Isaac off the Gulf Coast.
Center spokesman Dennis Feltgen said the odds were dropping for a direct impact on Florida's East Coast but the storm was so large that much of the state is going to feel some impact as Isaac approaches the Florida Keys late Sunday.
"There is a growing confidence with the model consensus,'' he said. "They all tick to the left.''
Forecasters predict Isaac could be at hurricane strength by Monday afternoon, when it would be off the coast of Tampa, site of the Republic National Convention, which is set to open that day.
Gov. Rick Scott said he was taking a "wait-and-see" approach as Isaac nears Florida, though he expressed relief that the track appeared to be moving away from Tampa.
"Right now, if you look at the projected path, it looks like we will have some rain, and some wind," he said. "Really, the time to have a discussion about this is after it leaves Cuba."
In South Florida, emergency managers were continuing to monitor Isaac but had not yet decided whether evacuations might be necessary. Monroe County administrators were considering closing schools Monday.
Though storms in the past have dramatically weakened or dissolved over Haiti and Cuba, Feltgen said forecasters don't see that happening with Isaac.
"The models are pretty consistent this thing is going to survive," he said
In fact, Isaac is expected to strengthen in the Gulf, where it could threaten anywhere from the Florida Panhandle to Texas next week.
For Haiti, Isaac's rains are what will add to the misery of some 400,000 refugees of the 2010 earthquake who still live in makeshift tent cities around the capital.
The danger from flash floods and mudslides is even greater outside the capital, where crumbling hillsides stripped of vegetation have made much of the country's often poorly built homes vulnerable to floods and lethal landslides. Storms in 2008 left hundreds dead and thousands homeless. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne killed some 3,000 people in Gonaives when three rivers spilled over.
Forecasters are predicting from eight to 12 inches of rain across Haiti, with up to 20 inches in some spots.
Haiti's government mobilized disaster committees and warned the entire country could be affected.
"Do not panic," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said. "Panic can create more problems. It's best to remain calm."
Isaac appeared to have spared the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico of serious damage, but authorities feared there still could be flooding,
In Cuba, the news agency Prensa Latina reported civil defense agencies in the eastern part of the country have been activated and are in the process of evacuating people from low-lying areas and protecting "economic and social" resources.
Tropical Storm Joyce also formed Thursday, but forecasters expected it to curve into the Atlantic -- with only Bermuda potentially in its path early next week.