As floodwater in Slidell’s Military Road area began slowly falling instead of rising Wednesday, St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister said the parish is moving from response to recovery mode, assuring residents that officials are working to expedite cleanup and pointing to St. Tammany’s inclusion in a presidential disaster declaration.
The shift came after days of responding to a crisis that moved from one side of St. Tammany to the other, starting Friday night and Saturday morning after heavy rainfall sent rivers in western St. Tammany raging over their banks and ending Monday and Tuesday with the slow but unstoppable swelling of the West Pearl River in subdivisions along Military Road near Slidell.
The parish is still working to assess the damage, pinning the number of flooded structures in western St. Tammany at more than 650. That work has not even started in the east. Parish teams will go out to affected areas as soon as it’s safe to do so.
But getting back to normal was clearly the order of the day Wednesday. The St. Tammany Parish public school system, which had closed schools in some parts of eastern St. Tammany on Wednesday, announced classes will be back in session everywhere on Thursday.
Even in hard-hit areas, residents were turning their thoughts to recovery.
Danny and Melissa Keicher, who live on Parlange Drive with their 7-year-old son and 5-month-old daughter, saw the floodwater inside their Magnolia Forest home rise to a height of 8 inches. That’s above the mark on the flagstone hearth that was left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Danny Keicher said his wife broke down in tears Tuesday and son Davyn began crying too, mourning the loss of his toys. But on Wednesday, the couple was planning their next steps: cleaning out the garage to serve as a staging area for removing sodden carpet and Sheetrock.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Danny Keicher said. “The water came so quickly.”
But his in-laws, who live across the street, built their lot up higher and didn’t flood, so the Keichers have a place to stay, although the electricity is still off.
Now, they’re hoping to get Davyn back in school. “He’s so bored,” his mother said as she watched the boy pulling a flat-bottomed boat back and forth across the inundated street.
A few houses away, the lights that had gone out at midday Tuesday were restored Wednesday afternoon, much to the delight of Jerry Garner, who retired from a job with the Orleans Parish Levee Board in 2013.
His house didn’t flood, but some neighbors were taken out of the neighborhood by a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office Humvee after the power was turned off Tuesday.
Sheriff Jack Strain said people were breathing a sigh of relief Wednesday as the water levels fell. But the Sheriff’s Office remained busy.
Deputies began issuing tickets to people driving too fast through inundated streets Wednesday after issuing warnings on Tuesday.
Wakes from vehicles have been a problem, Strain said, and fines can range from $300 to $500.
Residents had posted signs along some flooded streets. One asked drivers to slow down, adding, “We beg.”
Deputies in Humvees also were helping people get back to their homes along Indian Village Road, stopping to advise motorists in small vehicles not to try getting out.
They spotted Steven Newby and Rebecca Perschall, both 17, in a canoe on Indian Village Road. Another resident told deputies he had seen the two struggling and scared as they were caught by the current. Deputies offered to take them out, putting the canoe atop the Humvee as the two hitched a ride inside.
Perschall said she had been frightened by the snakes and spiders when the current pushed them into a wooded area.
Several elected officials were also out and about. Parish Councilwoman Michele Blanchard, whose district includes parts of the Military Road area, said she had spent two hours Tuesday trying to get her two children out of River Oaks subdivision, using a canoe they had to pull along in the ditch when they hit patches of land. She finally gave up. But Wednesday, she was checking on her constituents on the ground after getting an aerial view from a Blackhawk helicopter.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt was also doing a ground check. The view from the air is helpful, she said, but it can’t show who has water up to their door and who actually has it in their house.
She called the inclusion of the parish in the federal disaster declaration a “big turning point” for homeowners and business owners.
The disaster declaration means that St. Tammany Parish residents affected by the flooding are eligible for individual disaster assistance through FEMA, Brister said in a news release.
“We want every resident to know what this declaration means for their families who now need to start their own recovery process. In addition, your parish government is working on processes that will expedite cleanup and recovery efforts for affected families and businesses,” she said.
Affected families and businesses can apply for disaster relief through www.disasterassistance.gov or by calling (800) 621-3362, she said, noting residents may qualify for several federal disaster aid programs.
She also issued an executive order Tuesday waiving permit fees for repairing or rebuilding homes and structures damaged by the floods.
Pickup of construction and demolition debris will be activated in affected areas, and residents should leave flood-related debris at their curbs, the parish said.
Information can be found at www.stpgov.org/disaster and by calling (985) 809-2300.
“We will work together to make every family and business impacted by this flooding whole again,” Brister said in a statement. “As we have always done, St. Tammany Parish will come together as one community and pull through stronger than we were, with the same sense of unity and resiliency that has always bound us together, that is part of our identity — part of what makes us St. Tammany.”