Local residents sit in a hurricane shelter at Belle Chasse Auditorium in… (Chris Graythen / Getty Images )
BELLE CHASSE, La. -- The sounds of a small chorus singing "Happy Birthday to You" floated through Belle Chasse Auditorium on Tuesday as Allen Williams Sr. turned 93. He was surrounded by his family and scores of strangers living amid cots and small bundles of clothing in a shelter set up for people in the path of Hurricane Isaac.
This wasn't the birthday celebration the large Williams clan had envisioned, but its members have learned not to dawdle when officials of Plaquemines Parish order evacuations. "When they say it's a storm, get out," said Wilma Taylor, one of the family members.
Like many people in the shelter, Taylor lost everything during Hurricane Katrina; she also had to evacuate in 2008 when the last hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast, Gustav, hammered her town of Davant.
PHOTOS: Bracing for Isaac
"If we had stayed home, we all would have been killed," she said of the rush seven years ago to flee Katrina, a storm that appears to have taught many here the wisdom of being extra cautious, early.
By 10 a.m. Tuesday, before Isaac had reached hurricane strength and as it hovered more than 125 miles off the coast, about 400 people had already arrived at three shelters set up in Belle Chasse. They had come from low-lying areas surrounded by water where levees might not be high enough to keep back the storm surge predicted from 36 hours of rain.
"It's not yet a hurricane, but our concern is the tidal surge," said Gina Meyer, the superintendent of Plaquemines Parish's emergency medical services as she oversaw things at the shelter in the auditorium.
When asked how area residents were behaving this time as opposed to pre-Katrina days, she said, "The people are much more cautious and prepared."
Inside the auditorium, a chandelier graced the high ceiling. A large flat-screen TV showed constant updates on Isaac, which appeared as a rough-edged red blob on the weather maps. Cots were lined up neatly, some decorated with personal effects from home: stuffed toy animals, embroidered pillows.
"You've always got to take the memories first," said Kneaka Griffin, one of Williams' grandchildren, who had grabbed family photos along with some clothing. The family had fled as soon as evacuation orders came down Monday.
"We're surrounded by water. If there's an evacuation, we're always the first ones to leave," said Griffin, who said she has no time for skeptics who suggest that Isaac is but a harmless rainstorm.
She remembers how the family had to rebuild after Katrina: "We had to start all over again."
"I don't want to have to go through that again," chimed in Taylor, her aunt. "I had no second thoughts about leaving this time. I was scared."
Added Griffin: "When you look at the categories of hurricanes, Isaac is really low. But it could speed up."
Outside, two of Allen Williams' sons were watching rain fall as they speculated on whether the levees protecting the family home would do their job, and how to make their father's birthday more celebratory. "We gotta buy him a cake or something," Alton Williams said.
Cars continued to arrive in the auditorium's parking area. Meyer said there were about 80 cots still available in Belle Chasse but that nobody would be turned away, even if all the spots were filled.
"We'll find places for them," she said, even if that means busing people to neighboring parishes. "We'll never turn anyone away who comes here."