Bodies of two missing tubers found in Amite River _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Tubers stop on a sandbar before the pick up point for Tiki Tubing, Sunday, June 22, 2014. The Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office is investigating drownings on the Amite River where two men drowned while tubing with a large group out of Tiki Tubing, Sunday, June 22, 2014.

DENHAM SPRINGS — Livingston Parish often limits access to waterways when conditions become dangerous, like in the face of an advancing hurricane. But after a few weeks in which one person drowned on the Amite River and 15 more needed to be rescued, many officials say nothing can be done to restrict access to the water.

Each summer, Denham Springs-based Tiki Tubing rents rubber innertubes to people looking to cool off by floating down the Amite. And each summer, customers have drifted past their "get-out" site and required rescue crews to pluck them from the often-treacherous river.

Two incidents have grabbed headlines just a month into this year’s river season: Keith Hilliard, the 53-year-old father of LSU pitcher Ma’Khail Hilliard, drowned in June while Tiki Tubing. Three weeks later, firefighters had to save at least 15 tubers from dangerously high waters. Another was rescued a month prior, on the business’s first open weekend of the summer.

Despite the rash of close calls and death, Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks can only do so much about a business whose customers enter the waters of their own accord, he insisted Monday.

“This happens every year, and we’ve checked with our attorneys and everyone we can possibly check with,” Ricks said. “You’ve got a private business. You’ve got adults making decisions on whether or not to go Tiki Tubing. I don’t have any ordinance or any regulatory control over something like that.”

The hands-off approach marks a different tack than the one the parish takes when storms or flooding render the river dangerous. In such cases, working with the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, Ricks invokes his executive powers to block waterways to recreational traffic. He and OEP did so at least a half-dozen times since 2018, records show.

But those situations are fundamentally different from impeding a private business, Ricks said.

“Certainly, when there’s flooding danger or something like that where the waterways are high, we close all waterways,” he said. “But as far as just closing or penalizing this business, I don’t have any control over that at all.”

A Tiki Tubing co-owner did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Over recent weeks, heavy rains in the Amite's upper basin have raised water levels at times along the float path. The company said on its Facebook page that it would close Sunday and Monday due to high waters, as on-and-off rain fell in the Baton Rouge region through Tuesday morning.

Rescuing Tiki Tubers is part of his department’s routine, said James Wascom, the Livingston Parish Fire Protection District No. 4 chief, whose crews responded to Saturday’s incidents alongside Central rescuers.

The chief doesn’t believe the parish should impose any restrictions, though.

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“We look at them as just another rescue on the river,” Wascom said.

Another local rescue chief feels differently.

First responders from Livingston Parish Fire Protection District No. 5, which works down the river from Wascom’s crew, had to rescue a half-dozen tubers last year — plus the one who was stranded earlier this summer, Chief Joe Koczrowski said.

“The fire marshal doesn’t regulate (tubing),” he said. “The parish doesn’t regulate it. The state doesn’t have any regulations saying what you have to do and how you have to do it. Until the state or the parish passes some kind of regulatory deal, there will be no consequences.”

From the parish government to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Koczrowski feels like he’s pleaded the case for tubing-related rules to “every possible agency” — to no avail.

“Nobody wants to step up and be the bad guy. And if I knew why that was, I’d be a millionaire and I’d have went up with Bezos this morning in his rocket," Koczrowski said, alluding to a space flight billionaire Jeff Bezos completed Tuesday afternoon.

The parish council could theoretically pass an ordinance regulating tubing. But that would probably spark an uproar among Livingston Parish voters, who grew angry recently with Ricks’ decision to shut down a noncompliant Walker paintball site.

The council would have to juggle competing factors in weighing tubing-related regulations, such as peoples’ right to enter the river for recreation, enforcement and how to regulate sections of the water that run through other parishes, Walker-area Councilman Tracy Girlinghouse said.

“When you start regulating people's choices, it gets complicated,” he noted.

Ricks placed the cease-and-desist order on Guerrilla Warfare Paintball in May because the site had run afoul of parish permitting rules. The Tiki Tubing situation is different, the parish president insisted.

“Would you close the roadways down if somebody drunk goes down the road?” Ricks asked rhetorically. “No. Accidents are sad and they’re unfortunate and sometimes they end tragically. But they are accidents.”

Koczrowski urged people to think twice before entering the volatile Amite. From fast-rising waters to fallen trees hidden under the water’s surface, he said, risks abound.

“The river is angry,” Koczrowski said. “I wouldn’t want none of my family in that river. Hell, I don’t like getting in it in a boat to run rescues.”


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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