Following a day of historic flooding that brought water levels not seen in decades, numerous communities on the north shore began rolling up their sleeves Sunday and getting to work on cleanup efforts big and small.
Among those pockets was the St. Joseph Abbey Monastery and Seminary College, a 1,200-acre campus four miles north of Covington that includes a woodworking shop, a cemetery and a Christian Life Center retreat area.
By Sunday morning, a professional cleanup crew had begun a massive effort to rid the campus of standing water left from a flood that reached an average of between 20 and 24 inches throughout the campus, according to James Shields, the abbey’s communications director.
Outside one building was a pile of soggy rugs. At another, volunteers were busy hauling leather couches and other furniture into the yard and starting to clean up offices where bookshelves looked as if a giant had tossed them around.
“It’s crazy,” Shields said. “Everything was underwater. We’re not sure how we fared yet.”
As cleanup efforts continued Sunday afternoon, the Rev. Gregory Boquet, president and rector of the seminary college, gave The New Orleans Advocate a tour of the damage, ranging from a sprawling library filled with damp books to a church basement still filled with murky brown water.
“We’re not sure how long it’s going to take yet because we’re still in the assessment phase,” Boquet said about cleanup efforts. “Every building has had some water intrusion.”
Boquet described a harrowing scene on Saturday morning, seeing floodwaters come through the walls of a newly renovated dormitory where 20 men stayed. No one could get in or out of the building, he said, because water blocked the doors.
At one point, he said, the water got so high that firefighters wouldn’t let anyone in or out of the entire campus, fearing they would be swept away by the river’s waters when trying to cross a bridge leading to the buildings.
Boquet described a community effort to turn electricity off and get anyone on the first floor up to higher ground, where monks and seminarians took refuge as the water rose.
“You could hear when the flood was happening,” Boquet said, pointing at water marks on the walls of the dorm rooms, “because you could hear the sound of water and frogs.”
Next door, he pointed to sections of the Pere Rouquette Library where thousands of wet books lay scattered and tossed around, waiting to be frozen as part of a preservation effort designed to prevent mold damage.
“It never got this bad before,” he said, adding that the last time the monastery flooded was 1916.
Neither Shields nor Boquet could put a monetary figure on the damage, saying officials hadn’t been able to take full inventory of what was lost or irreparably damaged.
Boquet said the monastery didn’t have flood insurance but that he believed FEMA would pay for part of the extensive repairs and cleanup.
Renovations are still some ways off, he said, adding that for the next few days the cleanup crew will be concerned with getting rid of excess water that pooled inside the campus buildings and flooded the church basement.
Some areas of the campus, such as the retreat center, will remain closed until further notice, Boquet said. Others, including the college, are expected to be up and running within a week.
Officials also were concerned about some money-making parts of the campus operations, including the beehives that made honey sold in the monastery’s gift shop; they were wiped out by the water.
“We have set priorities; some will come online sooner than others,” Boquet said.
On Sunday afternoon, volunteers and the cleanup crew could be seen working side by side on one of the priorities: the woodworking shop, which sells caskets in monastic and traditional styles for between $1,700 and $2,250 each.
According to Shields, the monastery makes about 250 caskets a year, with the help of 23 volunteers and one monk.
As the sun shone down on the grass outside, one volunteer was busy wiping off hundreds of handles that were to be attached to remaining caskets that hadn’t been damaged by the flood. Others were assessing the mechanical part of the woodworking operations.
Deacon Mark Coudrain, who was overseeing the cleanup efforts for the woodworks operation, said it was still too early to determine whether the machinery still worked, though he noted that every motor in the building spent some time underwater.
Regardless, he said, the shop is determined to deliver every casket it had promised to customers.
“We’re doing our best to get the operation up and running,” Coudrain said.
Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.