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Advocate staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Flooded areas of Watson on Saturday

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

About 20,000 people have been rescued, along with hundreds of pets, and at least three, maybe five, people have died as a result of flooding caused by historic amounts of rain falling on south Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Sunday.

“I can’t say it’s worse than a hurricane,” Edwards told reporters after being briefed by law enforcement and emergency officials, “but it’s plenty bad.”

Edwards officially requested federal assistance in paying for emergency operations and overtime. By Sunday night, the federal government agreed, declaring a major disaster for four parishes, Edwards said.

President Barack Obama spoke with Edwards to say the governor's initial request for an emergency declaration had been granted, according to Jen Friedman, the White House's Deputy Press Secretary.

About 37,000 utility customers — 9,000 of whom are under water — are without power and thousands of AT&T cell phones aren’t working because a substation on Choctaw Drive in Baton Rouge flooded, said Eve Gonzalez, secretary of the Public Service Commission. (That doesn’t include utility customers in the City of Lafayette, which sells electricity within city limits.)

More than 10,000 people, the numbers continue to grow, had arrived at shelters as of Sunday night, Edwards said. The City of Baton Rouge allowed the state to open the River Center as a shelter Sunday night.

Nearly 2,000 National Guardsmen have been mobilized.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said state offices will be closed Monday in 27 parishes. 

Though the sun shined off and on in Baton Rouge on Sunday, Edwards asked residents not to sightsee and stay at home.

Most of the work being done now is search and rescue missions of people who need to be evacuated from residences, nursing homes and vehicles. The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, alone, floated out on boats to collect 1,229 persons in East Baton Rouge Parish from the high water and another 826 people in Lafayette Parish — that doesn't include rescues conducted by other agencies.

Oschner Medical Center, near Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge, evacuated most patients on Sunday.

The situation, though better, is still precarious as rivers, bayous, canals and streams continue to rise, Edwards said during two press briefings at the state Office of Homeland Security Unified Command Group at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, better known as GOHSEP, in Baton Rouge.

Edwards recommended homeowners use the sunshine to take photographs of damage to their vehicles and residences. The next phase of the disaster will entail personal insurance and disaster assistance claims.

The intensity of the storm, which has lingered over the Baton Rouge area for several days, is lessening, but the system is moving westward, Edwards said. The biggest water problems have shifted into southern sections of East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes as well as Ascension Parish and Acadiana.

The National Weather Service is predicting another 1-to-3 inches of rain throughout the region. Moderate to heavy rainfall is predicted for the next few days.

James Waskom, GOHEP director, said, “We’re still in the search and rescue mode. There’s a lot ongoing, as we speak, in Lafayette Parish, Vermilion Parish and onto the west.”

The state Department of Transportation and Development reported the closures of about 200 roads, including more than 30 washouts of state highways. Another 1,400 critical bridges need to be inspected before traffic can freely travel over them.

Click here for the most up-to-date list of road closures.

Late Sunday, the federal government declared Tangipahoa, St. Helena, East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes suffered a major disaster. Additional parish declarations will be made as further damage assessments are conducted, Edwards said.

Gerry Stolar, of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said the declaration allows individuals to seek assistance and provides funding for debris removal and other emergency work. FEMA also is sending water and food.

Up to $33,000 is available for flooded homeowners without flood insurance, provided they live in neighborhoods that didn’t require the insurance and are in a parish that has been declared a disaster by the federal government, he said.

“They should not give up,” Edwards said of people who have suffered, adding that it is important to document the damages and to register for assistance. The phone number is (800) 621-3362. Other impacted parishes should be declared a disaster by the federal government in coming days, he said.

The federal declaration that Louisiana suffered a major disaster frees the federal government to pay about 75 percent of the state’s expenditures in dealing with the emergency. Higher matches, up to 90 percent federal dollars to 10 percent of state spending, are available depending on how expensive the disaster eventually becomes.

Commissioner Dardenne said the state is spending whatever is necessary in these initial phases of search and rescue as well as sheltering evacuees and other emergency expenditures. The agencies are recording their costs, including overtime, in hopes the federal government will pay the lion's share of the costs, he said.

Prisoners at the Livingston Parish Jail were evacuated Saturday, but no further movement of inmates from state and parish prisons are anticipated, Edwards said.

State government offices will be closed Monday in Acadia, Ascension, Assumption, Beauregard, Cameron, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Evangeline, Iberia, Iberville, Jefferson Davis, Lafayette, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, St. Charles, St. Helena, St. James, St. Landry, St. Martin, St. Tammany, Tangipahoa, Vernon, Vermilion, Washington, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes.

If state workers aren’t impacted by the emergency but want to help, Dardenne recommended they call their supervisors first to see where they are needed, rather than hit the roads looking for a place to volunteer.

Agency heads will determine which employees are essential and need to remain on duty and those who should report to alternate work sites.

State employees can phone (800) 360-9660 or (225) 342-0498 for updated information.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.