In the midst of the chaos created as floodwaters inundated south Louisiana in August, Jason Ard found himself alone in a hallway, praying for help.
The Livingston Parish sheriff’s wife and daughter, who he’d only seen a time or two since the flood began, had come to his office to check on him about an hour earlier.
“That ain’t what I needed to see,” Ard said. At that moment, the magnitude of the disaster unfolding in his parish got to him — despite all his law enforcement training to stay emotionally detached when handling emergencies.
Even almost a year later, Ard grew emotional at times as he spoke Sunday in Denham Springs at Lockhart Road Baptist Church, which organized a service to recognize law enforcement officers, firefighters and others who helped with rescue and recovery efforts.
Ard told the small congregation about a series of events that remain a blur to him. “Friday to Tuesday felt like one day,” he said.
The Livingston Parish 911 call center and jail flooded and had to be evacuated. Major roads were closed, cutting the parish off from the outside world. Deputies worked long shifts even though many of their own homes had flooded.
All of this came after a difficult July in nearby Baton Rouge, with protests following an officer-involved shooting and an ambush that claimed the lives of three law enforcement officers — Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald and Montrell Jackson and East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy Brad Garafola — who all lived in Livingston Parish. So did sheriff's deputy Nick Tullier, who was grievously injured and is now recovering in a Houston rehabilitation center.
“These deputies," Ard said of his staff, "are getting broken down piece by piece.”
So a few days into the summer's next crisis — the flood — the sheriff found himself in the hallway, leaning over a rail, bowing his head in prayer. There was so much to do and not enough manpower to do it all.
“My deputies are hurting. The parish is hurting,” Ard remembered thinking at the time. “I don’t know what else to do.”
When he looked up, then-State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson, East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux and two other sheriffs were there, ready to lend their agencies’ assistance.
“God sent them to me,” Ard said. “They hugged me. They prayed with me. They lifted my spirits and put me in the helicopter and they got me out of there. They brought me to the EOC over in Baton Rouge,” where Ard was able to ask Gov. John Bel Edwards for additional help that proved key to rescue efforts.
The church where Ard spoke served as a shelter for about 1,000 people for three days during the flood and its aftermath. The pastor, the Rev. Lee Ostten, on Sunday presented certificates of appreciation to Ard, the police chiefs of Denham Springs and Walker, and two District 4 firefighters as well as a few people from out of town who brought supplies to the church’s shelter.
“This is what it’s about — hometown heroes and doing the right thing to help,” Ostten said.
Everyone in Livingston Parish has a flood story, Ostten said, adding that some people now greet one another by asking, “How much water did you get?”
Walker Police Chief David Addison wiped tears from his eyes as he told worshippers about his experience. “It was rough,” he said, recalling the expressions on the faces of people, especially the elderly, as they rode high-water trucks to safety.
“Their faces were just white, and their eyes — they were scared,” Addison said.
Austin Ebarb, a District 4 firefighter, said he was staying at his fiancee’s home in Colyell when the flood hit, so he called that community's fire chief to ask how he could help. He spent two days taking part in rescues, including that of a paraplegic man.
Shannon Womack, the police chief of Denham Springs, noted that teamwork among complete strangers — whether they were employees of different emergency response agencies or just private citizens wanting to lend a hand — was important. He said the flood revealed many everyday people to be heroes.
For Ard, the flood highlighted the sacrifices his employees make to keep their community safe. To get to his office during the flood, Ard said, he had to step over deputies catching a couple hours’ sleep on the floor before they headed out again. Dispatchers worked hard to keep up with the deluge of 911 calls coming into their center, even after it took on water.
“They were walking around barefooted with their pants rolled up in the water," Ard said. "They were so focused, and it was humbling to see that.”
Ard urged the congregation to offer their support for first responders. He said their job is risky, difficult and, above all, a calling to service, no matter the circumstances.
“When God calls you,” Ard said, “you go.”