Scott looks beyond Isaac to Labor Day tourism in Florida

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott is looking beyond Hurricane Isaac to assure visitors that Florida is open for business and that the weather will be great for the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend.

Scott began pumping up Florida's tourism industry Tuesday while recovery efforts remained under way from severe flooding in South Florida. The Panhandle was still bracing for what was forecast to be a somewhat lesser soaking.

"We are open for business on Labor Day. ... The whole state will be sunny by this weekend," Scott told a news conference.

The governor said he wasn't worried that Florida's convention business would be hurt by the high-profile threat that Isaac, then a tropical storm, had posed to the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

"We know how to deal with hurricanes," Scott said. "And, everybody that comes to Florida enjoys their trip here. They know it's sunny. They love our beaches. They like our weather. They like our fishing. So, I'm sure that more and more people will want to continue to come to Florida for their family trips or for their conventions."

Isaac delayed the GOP festivities for a day, and Scott canceled a speech he was supposed to deliver at the convention to focus on storm preparations and recovery.

The Pensacola area began feeling Isaac's storm surge and getting its rain on Tuesday with flooding on some roads and in low-lying neighborhoods.

Damage was minimal in Tampa and the Florida Keys, but 10 to 18 inches of rain in the Palm Beach area caused once-in-100-year flooding, Scott said.

"They are pumping as much water as they ever pumped in the history of the water management district down there," he said.

Scott plans to visit the South Florida Water Management District and tour flooded areas of Palm Beach County on Wednesday.

Some people remained marooned in homes surrounded by water in Palm Beach County while residents sifted through debris in a Vero Beach neighborhood that was struck by an apparent tornado. No one was hurt.

About 26,000 homes, businesses and other customers remained without power, mostly in South Florida.

After tracking across the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm, Isaac reached Category 1 hurricane strength with winds of 80 mph on Tuesday as it neared the Louisiana coast. Early forecasts had predicted a Panhandle landfall, but later projections moved the storm west of Florida. Isaac, though, was still expected to bring plenty of rain as well as tropical storm-force winds to the Panhandle.

The Coast Guard also was searching for a man who failed to return home from a water-scooter trip near the Florida-Alabama state line.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, meanwhile, continued to handle claims from an earlier storm.

Scott took a break from his concentration on Isaac to visit a joint state-FEMA field office in Tallahassee set up after Tropical Storm Debby drenched Florida in late June. The federal agency still has 250 workers in Florida dealing with Debby claims.

So far, 16,000 Florida residents in 22 of Florida's 67 counties have applied for assistance, and FEMA has distributed more than $22 million in aid to individuals, said federal coordinating officer Gracia Szczech. State and local governments also are seeking $98 million to repair damaged roads, bridges, public buildings and other infrastructure. Szczech said 132 homes are still inaccessible due to Debby.

Debby victims have only a week left -- until Sept. 4 -- to apply for assistance, including grants and low-interest Small Business Administration loans.

No determination has yet been made whether Isaac victims will be able to receive similar assistance. State, local and federal authorities first must assess the damage to determine if Florida qualifies for federal disaster aid.