UPDATE, 5:55 a.m., Saturday:
The Bogue Falaya River at Boston Street in downtown Covington crested early Saturday morning at 20.07 feet, the National Weather Service said. While that is about three feet higher than the previous record and some 14 feet above flood stage, that’s also almost 1.5 feet lower than forecasters feared late Friday night. Water levels there were at 19.55 feet before 6 a.m. Saturday and should continue to slowly fall, forecasters added. Check back with The New Orleans Advocate for more details later.
Some residents of a neighborhood tucked into some woods between Covington and Goodbee grew so unnerved by the sight of rising water as nearby rivers swelled toward historic levels on Friday that they asked Stan Fitzmorris and Nick Henry for rides out of Dodge.
But Fitzmorris and Henry — who respectively used a rowboat and a big-wheeled, off-road vehicle to get a couple of their neighbors to higher ground — were staying put as the sun set.
They had plenty of food. They had stocked up on booze. And their neighborhood had fared relatively well when the adjacent Tchefuncte River reached a historic level in nearby Folsom in 1983, pouring two feet of water into Fitzmorris’ home on Authement Drive, off U.S. 190.
“That’s as high as it’s going to get,” the 67-year-old Fitzmorris predicted, as he gestured across his flooded street toward a telephone pole into which neighbors had driven a nail to record the waist-high water line more than 30 years ago.
“We know it won’t get no higher than that.”
Officials pled throughout the day for residents to leave flood-prone areas, warning that rescues would be difficult after night fall, and waters would continue to rise through Saturday morning.
More than 200 people heeded that call by Friday evening, including about a dozen who were staying overnight at a shelter that had been set up by the American Red Cross in Covington High School’s dining hall.
But many others — among them Fitzmorris, Henry, and their relatives and friends — chose to stick it out.
Overspilling their banks after days of heavy rains to the north, the rivers that criss-cross western St. Tammany Parish are set to reach unprecedented levels once again. The National Weather Service office in Slidell predicts they will crest in Covington about noon.
The Tchefuncte River, to the city’s west, will reach 32 feet in Covington. That ties the record levels that river — whose flood stage is 20 feet — reached near U.S. 190 in 1988, though upstream levels at that time fell short of the depth during the 1983 inundation.
The Bogue Falaya, to the east, is expected to reach 21.5 feet, more than four feet higher than the previous record set in 1993 and some 15.5 feet above flood stage. That flood inundated the areas between U.S. 190 and Highway 36 and saw waters rise beneath the undercarriage of the Boston Street Bridge.
An early sign of the severity of the flooding expected could be seen Friday evening, as waters from the Bogue Falaya began flowing around the bridge and creeping up Boston Street. Curious residents gawked as the water line inched toward barricades erected by Covington Police to block off the roadway, the main drag into downtown.
Meanwhile, St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s deputies had blocked roads leading north into Folsom, the site of severe flooding earlier in the day.
The flooding was hardly better near Authement Drive.
By 3 p.m., with the Tchefuncte behind her and water slowly surrounding her house, Irene Fleitas decided it was time to go. Water was pooling in her yard, overflowing the drainage ditches, bubbling in her septic system and filling the far end of the road she lived on near the start of Authement.
But even as she prepared to leave, Fleitas found she was trapped. A dip in the road just off 190 had filled with water that would have flooded her car and impeded her niece and nephew, who she had called for help, from getting to her.
“I felt like I was in danger and needed to get out of there,” Fleitas said. “I was frightened.”
Fortunately, Fleitas’ neighbor, Fitzmorris, had a 10-foot, aluminum flatboat to ferry her and her two Chihuahuas over the floodwater and to her relatives.
Fleitas wasn’t the only one fleeing the neighborhood. An 86-year-old woman who lived alone was leaving at the behest of her son, but she encountered the same problem Fleitas did.
Yet Fitzmorris was reluctant to row the elderly woman on the unsteady boat. So the 38-year-old Henry stepped up, loaded her onto his roll cage-equipped Polaris, and plowed through the murky water to unite the octogenarian with her worried child.
That left Henry and Fitzmorris free to return to their plans for the day, which included eating barbecue with their pals and kin, drinking alcohol, and hoping their neighborhood held up in the same way it did in ‘83.
“I think we’re good, but I guess time will tell,” Henry said.