The devastation wreaked by the swollen rivers that cut through the capital region expanded Sunday, inundating entire subdivisions in south Baton Rouge and flowing down into neighborhoods in adjoining Ascension Parish.
At least 20,000 people have been rescued, more than 10,000 people relocated to shelters, and the number of fatalities that appeared to be related to flooding grew to six people.
About a thousand motorists were stranded – some for more than 24 hours – on a string of islands surrounded by deep water crossing Interstate 12 in Livingston Parish and Baton Rouge. By the end of the night, Gov. John Bel Edwards said no more people were stranded on the road, although some vehicles remained there.
The difficulties for residents navigating treacherous terrain were compounded by communications failures, particularly the loss of signals in the Baton Rouge area for much of the day by AT&T cell phone subscribers. Thousands of phones weren't working because a substation in Baton Rouge flooded, said Eve Gonzalez, secretary of the Public Service Commission.
“I can’t say it’s worse than a hurricane,” Edwards told reporters after being briefed by law enforcement and emergency officials during the day, “but it’s plenty bad.”
The damage wrought by the slow moving storm that drenched multiple parishes starting Thursday night hit a wide swath of southeast Louisiana, from the Acadiana region to Tangipahoa Parish.
Baton Rouge began to see extensive flooding Sunday in communities near the Amite River, including Shenandoah and Old Jefferson from Tiger Bend down to Hoo Shoo Too Road.
High water also topped roadways surrounding Central -- where many neighborhoods had already been flooded -- cutting it off from the rest of the parish.
Officials announced the downtown River Center will be opened as a shelter by Sunday night. Earlier in the day, thousands of people in need of respite poured into Celtic Media Centre on Airline Highway, turning the movie studio into a huge impromptu shelter. Volunteers there on Sunday afternoon were awaiting thousands of cots and said basic supplies, from diapers to medication, were desperately needed.
In Ascension Parish, Sunday morning offered a brief reprieve, giving people a chance to assess early damage mostly in the northeast part of the parish along the Amite River and rescue flood victims. But parish officials continued to brace for the worst of the flood, as waterways drain south and the Amite reaches its projected crest at Port Vincent and Gonzales on Monday.
Rescue workers in nearby Livingston Parish continued to pluck people from their homes, taking them to shelters that keep opening and filling up. Officials monitored as flood waters flowed east from Denham Springs to Walker and south toward Port Vincent, where the Amite River is projected to crest Monday morning.
Parish President Layton Ricks said, thankfully, there have been no flood-related fatalities in the parish, although there have been some "serious situations."
"One guy in a wheelchair, the water came up so fast it was basically in his lap before he knew it, but we got him," Ricks said. "We got him."
About 30,000 utility customers – 9,000 of whom are under water – were without power. Some 1,700 National Guard personnel were mobilized, with another 300 or more on the way, and nearly 195 high-water vehicles tasked or staged to help local and state officials with rescue and response efforts in a 12-parish region sweeping from Lafayette to Tangipahoa, the Guard said Sunday afternoon.
Thirty boats, eight bridge erection boats and five helicopters also were deployed to help combat flood waters and protect communities, and the Guard distributed more than 600,000 sandbags, 96,000 bottles of water and 2,300 meals ready to eat – including some to the motorists stranded on I-12.
“We can also bring on military police and give police officers a chance to rest and check on their homes,” said Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana Army National Guard.
The intensity of the storm, which had lingered over the Baton Rouge area for several days, lessened and the system moved westward.
Though the sun shone off and on in Baton Rouge on Sunday, Edwards asked residents to tamp down any urge to sightsee and stay at home as evacuations and rescues continued.
Edwards officially requested federal assistance in paying for emergency operations. President Barack Obama called Edwards on Sunday to say the state's request for an emergency declaration was approved.
James Waskom, GOHSEP 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 on to the west.”
The death toll associated with the storm also rose Sunday, with Tangipahoa Parish officials reporting two flood fatalities.
Late Sunday, the East Baton Rouge Parish's office also said divers recovered the body of a woman inside a flooded vehicle in the Brownsfield neighborhood. Witnesses told investigators that the woman was seen trying to turn around in high water when her vehicle was swept away, according the sheriff's office.
A man’s body was found Sunday near the village of Tangipahoa. Crews with the Kentwood Fire Department found the man after he was swept away by floodwater Friday night and reported missing, Parish President Robby Miller’s office confirmed.
A woman was also discovered in a vehicle submerged under water on Hwy. 442 in Tickfaw area, an office official said.
Interstate 12, closed Saturday from Baton Rouge to Covington due to high water in multiple areas, is likely to remain closed west of I-55 at Hammond for another few days. Eastbound lanes from I-55 to Slidell reopened Sunday afternoon after waters receded there.
The state Department of Transportation and Development also 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.
Before the president can approve federal aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must recommend the governor’s request. A federal declaration allows 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 of Administration Jay 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.
Prisoners at the Livingston Parish Detention Center were evacuated Saturday, but no further movement of inmates from state and federal prisons are anticipated, Edwards said.
Advocate staff writers Andrea Gallo and Steve Hardy contributed to this report.