Crouching down on a cement floor, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards aimed to offer a comforting word Sunday to 5-year-old Jessica, one of the thousands of people who evacuated their homes in Baton Rouge as flood waters rose over the weekend.
"We're gonna try to get you home real soon," Edwards told the tiny tot, who was sitting in her hot pink wheelchair on the floor of Southern University's F.G. Clark Activity Center where she and her guardian, Alice Lewis, sought shelter on Saturday.
Edwards stopped by Southern University's basketball arena Sunday to visit with the more than 300 flood evacuees who sought shelter there and check on the conditions at the shelter, which is being run by the Red Cross.
The shelter is at capacity, but buses continued to arrive Sunday afternoon.
"You doing OK today?" Edwards asked as he made is way into the building, attracting a crowd of curious evacuees.
"My family is evacuated right now, too," he told one man, explaining that the Governor's Mansion flooded, leaving it with water in the basement and no electricity. He and his family were relocated to the State Police Joint Emergency Services Training Center in Zachary.
"The water is eventually gonna go down, and you're gonna be able to go home," Edwards tried to reassure them, though several people standing near the back of the crowd shook their heads in worry that there won't be much "home" left to return to.
Lewis said she and Jessica left their home in South Baton Rouge as the water began to creep up on Saturday.
"She has a medical condition. We had to get out of the house," she said.
She said she appreciated seeing Edwards there.
"It shows that he cares and is understanding," she said.
As he walked through rows of cots that were dotted with evacuees' few personal effects, Edwards, who was dressed down in a baseball cap, khakis and an un-tucked button-up short-sleeved shirt, shook hands and chatted with people, often asking them if there was anything they needed or how the facility was holding up as a shelter.
Tables nearby were lined with clothes and other items that have been donated. An announcement blared over the intercom system at about 1:30 p.m. that more hot food had arrived and people could get in line if they were hungry.
A frequent complaint Edwards heard: The restrooms. Women repeatedly told Edwards that the restrooms had not been cleaned regularly enough. He told them that he would pass along word and the issue would be resolved.
"Obviously, they would rather not be here," Edwards said, before heading out to view other shelters in the area. "They'd rather be home."
The historical flooding has forced thousands of people from their homes and into shelters like the one at Southern University's "Mini-Dome." Marketa Walters, the head of the state Division of Children and Family Services who accompanied Edwards on his trip to the shelters Sunday, said about 5,050 people sought shelter overnight Saturday.
Edwards had traveled to Colorado on Thursday for a Democratic Governors Association meeting, but cut his trip short when heavy rain hit south Louisiana and forecasts started to predict weather would grow even more severe.
After spending Saturday traveling to Tangipahoa, Livingston and St. Helena parishes to assess the damage there, Edwards said his phone started ringing Sunday morning "before the sun came up," with city and parish leaders from across south Louisiana giving and seeking updates.
About 20,000 people have been rescued, along with hundreds of pets, and at least three, mayb…
The governor has two phones, and while one of them has AT&T service that has been disrupted by an outage that hit Baton Rouge early Sunday morning, the other is Verizon and has been unaffected.
After the rounds of phone calls, Edwards headed to the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness headquarters on Independence Boulevard in Baton Rouge to begin a series of regular briefings with his top emergency advisers.
Edwards had initially planned to travel by helicopter to more western areas of the state that are now being affected, including Lafayette, but he ultimately decided it would be best to stay in Baton Rouge another day.
"This really remains to be the center of gravity for all of this," he said.
Before heading to the Minidome, Edwards stopped by the East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Operations Center on Harding Boulevard in north Baton Rouge to trade updates with city-parish leaders.
Inside the modern operations facility, the sound of ringing phones was at a near constant, as workers from the fire department, National Guard, Red Cross, city and other entities fielded calls that were coming in to non-emergency lines. Some of the calls were from people who had not heard from loved ones. Some were from people who were not sure where else to turn when they needed information about the nearest shelter still taking in evacuees.
A few feet away, Edwards, Mayor Kip Holden, State Police Col. Mike Edmonson and top officials from the state and parish held a private briefing.
"I work full-time here," said Holden, who hasn't held or attended a press conference on the weather since the flooding began. "I have to be here. During Hurricane Katrina, I did not leave this building. I'm here because the buck stops with me."
Holden said one of the most significant things he has seen over the past two days was the images of firefighters carrying elderly, young and sick people from their homes through flood waters to safety.
"We're working as hard as we can to carry out our jobs and make sure people's lives are a lot easier and better," Holden said. "Thank God for the sunshine today."