Smith, a former deputy sheriff, was trapped for several days with about 100 inmates in a New Orleans jail during Hurricane Katrina, up to her waist in floodwaters. She is still haunted by the experience.
"That's why I was panicked for this storm," she said.
Tens of thousands of people were told to leave low-lying areas, including 700 patients of Louisiana nursing homes, but officials decided not to call for mass evacuations like those that preceded Katrina, which packed 135 mph winds in 2005.
Isaac also promised to test a New Orleans levee system bolstered after the catastrophic failures during Hurricane Katrina. But in a city that has already weathered Hurricane Gustav in 2008, calm prevailed.
"I feel safe," said Pamela Young, who settled in to her home in the Lower 9th Ward — a neighborhood devastated by Katrina — with dog Princess and her television. "Everybody's talking 'going, going,' but the thing is, when you go, there's no telling what will happen. The storm isn't going to just hit here."
Young, who lives in a new, two-story home built to replace the one destroyed by Katrina, said she wasn't worried about the levees.
"If the wind isn't too rough, I can stay right here," she said, tapping on her wooden living room coffee table. "If the water comes up, I can go upstairs."
While far less powerful than Katrina, Isaac posed similar political challenges, a reminder of how the storm seven years ago became a symbol of government ignorance and ineptitude.
Political fallout was already simmering. Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who canceled his trip to the convention, said the Obama administration's disaster declaration fell short of the federal help he had requested, and asked for a promise to be reimbursed for storm preparation costs.
"We learned from past experiences, you can't just wait. You've got to push the federal bureaucracy," Jindal said.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said such requests would be addressed after the storm.
Obama promised that Americans will help each other recover, "no matter what this storm brings."
"When disaster strikes, we're not Democrats or Republicans first, we are Americans first," Obama said at a campaign rally at Iowa State University. "We're one family. We help our neighbors in need."
In Tampa, the storm's landfall did not appear to affect prime-time coverage or the Republican National Convention speeches. One of the few mentions of the storm came in the opening remarks by Ann Romney, wife of the Republican nominee.
"Just so you all know, the hurricane has hit landfall and I think we should take this moment and recognize that fellow Americans are in its path and just hope and pray that all remain safe and no life is lost and no property is lost," she told the crowd.
Outside, though, the streets of downtown Tampa were eerily deserted, a result of nasty weather from Isaac's outer bands, tight securities that blocked off streets and a delay in convention events because of fears the storm might target that side of the Gulf.
While politicians from both parties were careful to show their concern for those in the storm's path, Gulf residents and visitors tried to make the best of the situation on the ground.
In New Orleans' French Quarter, Hyatt hotel employee Nazareth Joseph braced for a busy week and fat overtime paychecks. Joseph said he was trapped in the city for several days after Katrina and helped neighbors escape the floodwaters.
"We made it through Katrina; we can definitely make it through this. It's going to take a lot more to run me. I know how to survive," he said.
Maureen McDonald of Long Beach, Ind., strolled the French Quarter on her 80th birthday wearing a poncho, accompanied by family who traveled from three different cities to meet her in New Orleans to celebrate.
"The storm hasn't slowed us down. We're having the best time," she said.
But farther east along the Gulf, veterans of past hurricanes made sure to take precautions.
At a highway rest stop along Alabama's I-10, Bonnie Schertler, 54, of Waveland, Miss., said she left her coastal home for her father's place in Alabama "because of the 'coulds.'"