Last updated: 6:45 p.m., March 11, 2016
Rivers swollen with torrential rains over the past 36 hours drove many southeast Louisiana residents from their flooded homes and prompted hundreds of rescues, and the dangerous situation is far from being finished as officials watch local waterways expected to continue to rise.
Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller has warned residents in low-lying areas to be wary of the rising Tangipahoa River and its tributaries. He also set a curfew from 9 p.m. Friday to 6 a.m. Saturday.
Shelters also opened for the 500 parish residents who had to be rescued from their homes and others who got out before the floodwaters struck.
“We’ve got issues all the way up and down the parish,” said Chip Fitz, a parish animal control official who is working at the emergency operations center.
At Central, where the Amite River continued to rise Friday, Mayor Jr. Shelton said residents are gearing up for what could be near-record flood conditions on Saturday.
“We’re getting prepared for overnight and tomorrow,” said Mayor Jr. Shelton on Friday.
The Comite River near Joor Road was at 24.15 feet at 11:30 a.m. Friday and was expected to rise almost another six feet to 30.5 feet early Saturday morning — near the record 30.99 feet set on June, 9, 2001. Widespread major flooding is expected on Saturday, possibly worse than the April 1983 disastrous flood.
“(Saturday) is going to be the day when the biggest problems will be,” Shelton said.
More rain on Friday and rising river levels keep emergency officials on their toes — searching for people who needed to be rescued and closing roads that had become too dangerous for traffic.
“It’s changing so fast, it’s hard to keep the list up,” said Mark Harrell, the Livingston Parish’s emergency preparedness director, who tried to keep up with the fluid situation. “It’s all over the whole parish.”
Livingston Parish Public Works Director Sam Digirolamo said the parish already had gone through about 291 tons of sand -- about 40,000 sand bags -- and had to order another 100 tons of sand.
Harrell said residents in flooded areas north of Albany could be seen wading, in some cases waist-deep, to remove items from homes and vehicles from yards.
Livingston Parish is under a curfew from dusk Friday until dawn Saturday, Harrell said.
“It’s got to be essential personnel only,” Harrell said. “If it’s an emergency like rushing to the hospital, fine. If you’ve got to go to work, fine. But for everyone else, if you’re on the roads, you’re going to jail.”
Harrell said Red Cross and church leaders are on standby to open a shelter, but it’s not been necessary.
“There’s been no need for one so far,” Harrell said. “Everyone’s been going to stay with their families.”
More than 100 roads throughout the Livingston Parish were under water Friday, some by as much as three feet, Harrell said.
The town of Livingston had 9.5 inches of rain on Thursday and Friday, while Ponchatoula got 13.47 inches of rain. Just to the east in Tangipahoa Parish, rain totals ranged from 10 inches to 20 inches.
Around mid-morning on Friday, Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s deputies and jail trusties gingerly helped Betty Oliver Neal of Natalbany down from a high-water rescue truck to a church shelter that had just opened. Neal, 53, suffers from a back ailment and had to be pulled from her trailer as water rose into her home three feet off the ground.
“It had come fast, quick and in a hurry,” said Neal, one of 150 people at the Eagle Heights Community Church by early Friday afternoon.
April Holloway, a 36-year-old mother of three, and her neighbors, Janet McDonald, 56, and Rudy Martinez, 49, escaped by boat and truck from their apartments near the heavily flooded Tangi Village Apartments. The apartments are near a creek that was completely covering a bridge by 11 a.m. Friday.
Holloway said she banged on her neighbors’ doors in the Brice Apartments to get out as the water started coming up at about 3 a.m.
“I was screaming for everybody that I could,” Holloway said. “It was bad.”
Holloway, flashing a mixture of anger and sadness that brought tears, shared her frustration with McDonald while they sat together at a table as children played on a nearby volleyball court in the church gym and some residents ate donated chicken sandwiches and pizza.
“I fought hard to get to where I was,” Holloway said.
“We’re lucky that we didn’t get worse than we did,” McDonald added.
She said it’s sad to see people lose so much.
“People say, ‘material things, material things.’ It ain’t really about the material things. It’s how hard you worked to get the material things,” Holloway said.
Rescue efforts in southeast Louisiana were aided by the Louisiana National Guard, which deployed 688 guardsmen who had 160 high-water vehicles, 44 boats and three helicopters.
Flooding conditions on Friday appeared to be worse in Tangipahoa Parish where Sheriff Daniel Edwards estimated that up to 300 homes had been damaged by the floods.
“We know that we’re always going to have problems around the river, but we’re talking about neighborhoods where the flash flooding has occurred, just really hadn’t seen anything like this before, and so it’s new to them,” Edwards said, whose office estimated the parish had received 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, causing flooding conditions that have not been seen since Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
On one rescue mission to the Tangi Village apartment complex in Tickfaw, Sheriff’s Deputy Jimmy Travis had to inch the big truck across bridge. The bridge over an unnamed creek was covered with water nearly to the top of its cement guardrail.
“But the problem is, should we get a few more inches more of rain, and I hope we don’t, but if we get another three to five inches of rain in the next 24 hours, I mean we could do this all over again and maybe even worse,” Edwards said.
Officials in parishes throughout the flooded areas pleaded with gawkers to stay away because the waves caused by passing cars is creating more problems for residents who have already experienced significant losses.
Miller, the parish president, signed a declaration of emergency in response to the rising flood waters and strong storms, which allows the parish to request assistance to help residents.
Baton Rouge residents experience plenty of rain on Thursday and Friday, but little of the hardships that were taking place to the east.
At LSU, which held classes on Friday, a stretch of Burbank Drive at Gourrier Avenue that’s usually heavily trafficked was submerged under floodwaters and closed to traffic Friday morning.
Orange and white signs diverted drivers on Burbank to either turn around onto Nicholson or to take alternate routes through the LSU campus.
Still, some drivers ignored the closure signs and plowed through, spilling waves of the brown water onto already soggy grass. At least one sedan had stalled trying to drive through the area, and a tow truck arrived late Friday morning for it.
Advocate staff writers Amy Wold and Andrea Gallo contributed to this report.