Water splashed along the side of the chest-high cab of a former military transport truck Saturday as it crept down Pruden Road, a crooked street west of Covington.
With houses lapped by currents, the neighborhood was largely still.
One family had ventured out in a tractor and another in a pickup in the least flooded areas, but otherwise the long stretch of roadway was a river flowing slowly through scattered houses separated by woods.
The truck pushed past a trailer sitting on foundations that lifted it precarious inches above the brown water. Then it ground to a halt. Two children stood at the trailer’s window, waving.
St. Tammany Parish deputies jumped off the truck and waded through the knee-deep water surrounding the trailer before bringing the two children, their younger sister and four adults out to benches lining the truck’s bed.
“It’s like a whole river back here,” said James Kephart, one of those rescued.
The group represented a fraction of the more than 700 people and nearly 90 pets rescued by first responders in St. Tammany on Friday and Saturday after finding themselves surrounded and trapped by the rising, murky waters of the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte rivers.
Elsewhere, another high-water truck rescued a dozen residents on Rousseau Road.
Irene Oliveri, 90, and her small, 13-year-old dog were among those who accepted help from the truck’s crew, anticipating that her home would soon take on water and realizing that neither driving nor walking out was any longer an option for her or some relatives with her.
“They’re just terrific — just so good,” Oliveri said of the first responders, her voice shaking as she walked arm-in-arm with her grandson’s wife, Jessica Drewes. “We wouldn’t have gotten through without them.”
Oliveri explained that she had not thought about evacuating despite the rising river levels because a neighbor of hers who had lived in the neighborhood for 30 years had never experienced anything so severe.
For some, even being surrounded by water was not enough to force them to leave.
Residents would frequently open their doors to greet the deputies, only to say they didn’t need help even as the floodwater lapped inches below their doorsteps. Kayakers plied some of the waterways, often turning down help from the truck.
In one case, deputies had to tell a boater hoping to take family members back into the flooded area to reach their home that they couldn’t do that, but it didn’t stop him.
“We see it all the time. People opt to stay no matter what,” St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain said with a sigh.
As deputies drove a Humvee down U.S. 190, they stopped at Authement Road, where neighborhood residents had gathered Friday evening with barbecue and beer behind water that had pooled in a dip in the street. That small pool had spread and deepened by Saturday into a lake that swallowed half an RV and extended far back toward the homes.
The gathering remained on the far side of the newborn lake, but residents waved off help.
Matthew Weigel, of Covington, was one of those willing to go where the high-water truck couldn’t, just to help a friend get his family on higher ground. With little more than a jug of water and a paddle, Weigel and his friend hopped on a canoe and navigated waters that were up to a pickup truck’s mirror at one point to reach the friend’s family, whose home was surrounded by water that cut it off from the first responders’ vehicle.
“That’s the way it’s always been, and that’s probably the way it should always be,” Weigel said. “You can’t always rely on government to help you out when you get in a crack. If you can help yourself out, without putting anybody in danger or anything, it’s usually a good thing to do.”
All told, the Sheriff’s Office sent out about 20 Humvees and a handful of military transports to crawl through the murky waters. The vehicles had been purchased through a military program that sells surplus equipment to law enforcement at a steep discount.
It was a wry moment for Strain, who faced criticism during his failed re-election bid last year for what critics described as “buying toys” — toys that were now being used in what is likely the last disaster operations before he turns over the reins of his office this summer.
The equipment was the most effective means of reaching the water-logged neighborhoods, Strain said, noting that traditional police vehicles would be flooded long before they reached residents in need of help and that stretches of shallow water and the occasional dry land made boats an impractical proposition.
“The Sheriff’s Office must be prepared for this,” Strain said. “Assets and resources like this are required to serve the people.”
The operations were not without risks for the rescuers themselves. A pair of deputies who left their vehicles to wade through water early Friday morning to reach a woman and her grandchild were hit by “a wall of water” and swept off the road, Strain said. The deputies managed to ditch the gunbelts and other equipment weighing them down before grabbing hold of a nearby tree and climbing.
They were rescued about an hour and a half later and taken to the hospital after showing signs of hypothermia, Strain said.
About midnight that night, another pair of deputies were imperiled when they took a flatboat out to rescue two residents and their pets. The two large dogs rocked the boat, sending them all overboard, Strain said.
All the people were able to grab onto a nearby pole and make their way to safety; one of the two dogs was rescued as well.
Given the unprecedented nature of the flooding, and the speed with which the water rose, it wasn’t always possible for residents to know to leave before it was too late.
Pat Catalano said she didn’t realize how deep the floodwaters had gotten around her house until her daughter nearly fell into the knee-high stream when she tried to leave for work. The two women, both of whom use canes, and their three dogs were helped into a truck along with their belongings and a wheelchair by deputies.
For Catalano, driving away was particularly painful. She moved to the north shore after losing her Chalmette home during Hurricane Katrina.
“I really wanted to stay,” she said. “I had enough of that with Katrina.”