PONCHATOULA — Grayish, engorged and dead, dozens of earthworms were scattered across the front porch of Rita Vicknair’s home. Her door is swollen, too, and took a heave to open. Ankle-deep water pools in the living room.
Floodwater has seeped into the computer screen at her desk and thrashed cabinets and other furniture about the home. An AR rifle was deposited on the ground next to a guitar. Diapers litter the floor of her bedroom.
The odor hung in the air here, as it did over all of Ponchatoula — spoiled food, sewage and soggy things.
Vicknair, one of the many people displaced by last week’s floods, was among those who returned home Monday, riding in a boat on a trailer pulled by a tractor. Her father, A.J., and 10-year-old son Kaden rode with her.
Vicknair was efficient and matter-of-fact, jamming clothes, shoes and items for her 3-week-old baby into trash bags to take to the house of a friend who is hosting her family. Kaden, who has placed toys and action figures in bins on his bunk bed, assessed his own damage — his baseball bat and basketball trophies were OK, though his hoverboard was ruined, and he couldn’t find his PlayStation. Vicknair didn’t stop to mourn the losses, helping her son pack his sneakers and find his karategi, the traditional karate uniform.
She did pause, just for a moment, while walking down a hallway where framed photos of her son had been knocked off the wall.
“Oh, Kaden, your pictures,” she sighed, then moved on.
Across southern Tangipahoa Parish, receding waters Monday allowed residents to go back to homes damaged in the flood. Meanwhile, the parish emergency preparedness office took to the sky in a helicopter and sent teams in ground units to survey the destruction. Roboticists from Texas A&M put a pair of drones in the sky to gather more information. Monday, officials estimated that at least 1,500 homes had been damaged, with about half those taking major damage, said Dawson Primes, head of the parish’s emergency preparedness office. He expects the number of damaged homes to rise above 2,000 once all areas are accounted for.
“It’s kind of unprecedented for us,” Primes said.
Authorities haven’t put a dollar amount on the damage, but Primes noted the flooding may have damaged two or three times as many homes as were hit during Hurricane Isaac, which caused $13.5 million in damage to Tangipahoa Parish.
Search and rescue operations have nearly finished, though. By late afternoon, only two rescues had been performed Monday. Firefighters, law enforcement and National Guardsmen have performed approximately 2,800 rescues since last week, according to the Parish President’s Office.
Guardsmen were still mustering at the Ponchatoula fire house Monday, though soldiers had begun performing other duties. An engineering team was helping assess bridges and found that an old wooden structure on Weinberger Road was no longer safe for large vehicles like fire trucks, though lighter traffic would still be safe, said Lt. 1st Class Josh Knight.
The Air National Guard was readying to go on standby, a less urgent status, and ground troops were preparing to begin moving back to their home bases, Knight said.
Adjutant Gen. Glenn Curtis, who visited the Ponchatoula station, said in an interview that the military is still monitoring the chance of more rain this week before pulling out.
“We don’t want to be late to a need,” he said.
The parish is also waiting to see if it will be granted federal disaster status, which opens up the possibility of aid from the U.S. government. Flooded communities farther north in the state have already been declared federal disaster zones, and the same could happen in Tangipahoa.
Some flood victims spent Monday arguing with their insurance agents, saying they were told, without warning, their flood insurance was canceled when one financial institution sold their mortgage to another. Such was the case with Austen Daigre, who spent an hour on the phone with his provider and said he may need to speak with a lawyer.
He thinks the flood insurance may have been canceled because his house is not in one of the most at-risk flood zones. Yet Saturday morning, he saw the water at the end of the driveway, and a half-hour later, at 4:30 a.m., the Tangipahoa River was to his garage, so he and his wife took their 1-year-old child and fled.
Like many of his neighbors in the Thibodeaux Road corridor, he spent Monday pulling up his soaked flooring and baseboards.
Joanne Tallo had just painted and installed new carpets six days before the flood.
“It was pretty carpet for six days,” she said. “That’s kind of a hard pill.”
However, she was grateful for her family’s safety and the National Guardsmen who rescued her granddaughter, who has a heart condition, from waist-deep water.
“Everybody’s safe. That’s all the matters. Really. … Every (public safety) service was absolutely generous and kind,” she said.
Before they fled their Brown Road home, Southeastern student Dylan Garaudy and his family put couches on top of chairs and tried to lift everything they could. But the water rose so high, the furniture ended up floating. The water also flooded the 1965 Ford Falcon he and his father, William, have spent six years restoring. Dylan Garaudy shrugged off some of the other losses — he remarked he needed a new desk anyway — but knowing that car flooded got to him, and he’s going to have to take the engine apart again to try to clean out all the grime.
There is one ray of light for the Garaudys, though. Before they left, they put all their home movies, photo albums and other family treasures in a trunk on the kitchen countertop, one of the highest stable surfaces in the home. William Garaudy stood before the counter Monday, where the water line was about one inch shy of running over the top and carrying off his family memories.
“It hits you in the heart when you see that trunk,” William Garaudy said. “It’s everything we had.”
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.