Last updated: 8:05 p.m.; March 12, 2016
HAMMOND — Flooding in Tangipahoa Parish drove hundreds of people from their homes on Saturday as Louisiana National Guard soldiers, deputies and firefighters fanned out to rescue those trapped by rising waters that made many roads impassible.
Heavy rains pounded northwest Louisiana earlier in the week, causing widespread flooding in communities there. After the storms moved to south Louisiana Thursday and Friday, Tangipahoa was hit hard, with St. Tammany just to the south seeing extensive flooding in the Covington area.
The flooding was especially severe south of U.S. 190 in southeastern Tangipahoa Parish. The communities affected include Hammond, Ponchatoula, Bedico and Robert, among others.
Interstate 12 westbound near the Robert exit, just east of Hammond, was down to one lane because of water on the road causing traffic backups for miles.
Evacuations were voluntary, but Gov. John Bel Edwards, who traveled to Amite, the parish seat, urged residents in the target areas to leave. An increasing number did so as concerns grew over rising waters along the parish’s rivers and lakes.
“There’s standing water everywhere in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “There’s still a lot of danger out there.”
Three people have died in the storms so far in Louisiana, including two people who were driving when they probably shouldn’t have, the governor continued.
He encouraged the public to stay safe and not seek out dangerous areas.
“It’s a little too early to be spectating and sightseeing,” Edwards remarked.
In just Tangipahoa, the National Guard on Saturday alone had rescued 249 people and 11 dogs by mid afternoon, according to Sgt. Maj. Alan Knight. Those were in addition to an estimated 500 people authorities in Tangipahoa said were rescued on Friday.
Teams are using flat-bottom and inflatable boats as well as rescue vehicles, Knight said. Forty-nine soldiers are currently running missions, but Knight expects the number will rise, and his unit has not been told when flood operations will cease.
Statewide, 1,340 Guardsmen have been mounting flood operations in at least 25 parishes, which include evacuations, search and rescue by vehicle, boat and helicopter, distribution and supply of water, security and shelter support, and distribution of sandbags.
The guard has deployed 160 high-water vehicles, 44 boats and three helicopters and has rescued more than 2,100 citizen and nearly 200 pets as of Saturday evening, according to Sergeant First Class Denis B. Ricou, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard.
The Tangipahoa River swelled from eight feet to nearly 26 feet near Robert between Thursday night and Saturday. According to the National Weather Service, that put it more than four feet over “major” flood stage.
Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller estimated that at least 600 homes could have been flooded. Additionally, about 300 people took refuge in a shelter Friday night, with another 200 expected to shelter Saturday night.
Miller expects the flood to ultimately wind up costing more than Hurricane Isaac, which did $13.5 million in damage in Tangipahoa Parish.
There is some good news, though. The Tangipahoa River appears to have crested just short of the record 27.1 feet, set in 1921. Miller believes some residents may begin returning home, at least to survey the damage, Sunday.
Residents have been reluctant to abandon their homes, said Specialist Kendall Louis of the Louisiana National Guard.
“They didn’t want to leave their houses. ... They didn’t want to go to a shelter,” he said.
However, the flood threat eventually overwhelmed residents’ desire to stay.
“They’re actually willing to come out now,” Knight said.
To the west and south, in Livingston, Ascension and East Baton Rouge parishes, the fears of widespread flooding didn’t materialize on Saturday but officials were keeping a close watch out on swollen rivers and streams.
In the Livingston Parish town of Killian, Saturday morning, police chief Dennis Hill was flying a drone over the community to survey the damage from Tickfaw River flooding.
Roads were impassable to cars, though residents paddled canoes down streets that had been taken over by the river.
“It’s a big mess,” Hill said.
After Hurricane Katrina, many residents chose to raise their houses on stilts, and those homes were generally spared by the recent floods.
Mark Harrell, the parish’s emergency services director, said every river in Livingston parish overflowed its banks due to this storm. On Friday, he said, the Amite River near the St. Helena parish line rose 18 inches in one hour.
Many people who called the parish emergency center just wanted to know if they would flood. Harrell said he told them to expect about what they got in the flood of 1983.
Several areas in the southern areas of Livingston Parish were still waterlogged Saturday morning.
In Springfield, the flood had dislodged a casket at the community cemetery, said Harrell, who traversed the communities in a Humvee.
It is unclear how many homes have been affected. Harrell said crews may not be able to start making a count until early next week.
On Saturday, he and his staff prepared for more flooding in riverside towns like French Settlement and Port Vincent, both along the Amite River. As rainwater drains and flows downstream from the north, more homes may be put at flood risk.
Livingston officials delivered about 36,000 sandbags on Friday, more than the number distributed during Hurricane Isaac and the subsequent flood combined, Harrell said.
As he drove around the Colyell area, Harrell offered assistance, though residents were generally riding out the flood on their own. At one home, a couple was sitting on their porch, their entire yard filled with standing water.
“Oh, we’re fine,” a woman yelled to Harrell.
Several people stopped him along his route to offer jambalaya, which was being delivered door to door in trucks and ATVs to flood victims.
One aspiring do-gooder in Saturday’s storm actually ended up causing more harm. Harrell said a man with an 18-wheeler blocked part of La. 441 with his truck. Harrell said the move delayed crews trying to deliver sand bags by about 20 minutes and said he is planning to bring charges against the driver.
In Central, residents were hopeful Saturday morning that the water they had watched creeping into their yards all night would stop rising before infiltrating their homes.
Heavy rain over the last couple days had swollen the Amite and Comite rivers, threatening flooding in some Central residential areas.
By Friday night the expectations were that the Comite River would hit its crest, or highest point before starting to recede, at 30.5 feet. By Saturday morning residents in the Winchester subdivision heard that had been lowered to 28 feet and then just a couple hours later the forecast was dropped to 26 feet on the Comite.
“Overall, from what they predicted last night, we really dodged a bullet,” said Central Mayor Jr. Shelton.
In the Winchester subdivision Saturday morning, Trudy Campbell watched as the water lapped at her rose bushes and at the first step onto her porch. After living in her house for the past 23 years, Campbell knows her flood stage levels and what levels where her home will be safe, and when it’s time to move the furniture.
“We flood at 27.4 feet,” she said. So when she heard the forecast had been lowered to 28 feet Saturday morning, she joined her husband in being hopeful that they could make it with the assistance of just a few sandbags.
“It creeps up differently every single time,” she said remember the floods during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008. “The tears come down when the water is in the house, because then it’s real.”
This time, she said she didn’t believe it would get to that point.
What the flood did bring out, she said, was kindness. On Friday, she said, groups of people in Central came out to the neighborhood asking if anyone needed help. They an older woman on the block with moving her furniture and other property off the ground level.
“It warmed my heart,” she said.
Trudging through the flooded street, Joseph and Kim Rome and her sisters Lindi Bay and Kristie Cooper were on their way to their cars to head to the grocery store. The Rome’s home was at the back of the street where more flooding was occurring, but they said so far only the barn had flooded and the water was a good way from the house.
At a 26-foot stage, there should be water in the house, but it was at 26 feet Saturday morning and it was still a ways off, indicating that something about the flood pattern or how the stage is measured has changed, Joseph Rome said.
In the 40 years the family has lived in the house, they said there have only been six floods that brought water into the house and only two were really bad – 1983 and 2001.
They weren’t worried this time because they’d done all they could do.
“We know it happens and we choose to live here,” Joseph Rome said.
Over on Frenchtown Road, another trouble spot for flooding, residents were still making their way through slightly flooded roads.
Mayor Sheldon said they didn’t have any reports of water getting into any of the homes on the road so far and overall the city fared very well. He credited law enforcement, firefighters and residents for handling the situation well as well as the Department of Public Works employees who were out all night monitoring conditions and keeping roads open as long as possible.
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