Eastern St. Tammany Parish residents were gearing up Sunday for expected “widespread devastation” from the Pearl River, one day after emergency workers rescued more than 700 people trapped by swiftly rising floodwaters on the western side of the parish.
Many of the latter returned to or emerged from their homes Sunday morning, some tearfully surveying the extent of the damage, others thankful the water didn’t go any higher than it did.
Sunday dawned sunny and bright, a welcome change from the storm system that had dumped more than 10 inches of rain on some areas of Louisiana, pushing creeks, rivers and ponds over their banks and catching some off-guard with how quickly the water rose. Several rivers crested 10 or more feet above their flood stages.
But people were very much on guard in the town of Pearl River and the Military Road area near Slidell, where residents have been keeping a close eye on the level of the rising Pearl River.
Some already had begun sandbagging their homes Saturday in anticipation of Monday evening’s projected 21-foot crest, which would equal the highest ever recorded on the river.
Brian Faust had built a sandbag barrier around his home on Herwig Bluff Road, which flooded in 1983 and during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Five friends had arrived in pickup trucks Saturday to help make runs for sandbags. “They said they knew I was too hard-headed to ask for help,” he said.
Sandbag distribution stations were swamped with homeowners like Faust, many of them going through the line numerous times to get as many bags as they could. From Thursday through Sunday, St. Tammany Parish distributed 92,000 sandbags, spokesman Ronnie Simpson said.
At the Fritchie Barn off Military Road, workers gave out 4,000 sandbags in just the first two hours it was open Sunday morning.
The events of 1983, the last time the Pearl River reached such heights, were on everyone’s mind, even recent arrivals who were not in the Slidell area for that flood.
Chris Raffo, who was waiting in a line of vehicles for sandbags, said he just moved into his new home on Morgan Bluff. He’d gotten calls from his plumber, his contractor and others warning him about the rising water.
“My flood insurance hasn’t kicked in,” he said, shaking his head. But he was happy with his decision to bring in 64 18-wheelers of fill dirt when he built.
Barry Bagert, who was on the St. Tammany Parish Police Jury when the last big flood hit, was keeping his eyes on Gum Bayou, which feeds into the Pearl. When the river gets high enough, he said, that bayou begins to flow backward, flooding Magnolia Forest subdivision. By late Sunday morning, the water that normally flows to the south had slowed significantly, he said.
Bagert and others noted that Katrina cut new passes for the water to enter the sound and no one knows how those changes will affect the river at such high levels.
Former parish President Kevin Davis said several recent high-water events did not result in flooding, despite official expectations.
Roads in Pearl River had begun to flood by Sunday evening, forcing some closures, according to Police Chief Johnny “JJ” Jennings.
Earlier Sunday, Jennings was going door-to-door to see who was leaving and who was not. “Most of the people back here are not leaving because they lived through the flood in 1983,” he said.
Evacuation was not mandatory but was “strongly urged,” he said.
St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain urged residents not to wait until the last minute to make a decision. “This flood has shown the potential for widespread devastation,” Strain said in a statement.
Barbara Crawford, who lives on Shingle Mill Road, was unfazed. “You can’t live on the Pearl River and worry about a little water,” she said, adding that she planned to stay.
Her next-door neighbor, Stephen Livingston, worked feverishly Sunday afternoon to elevate his mobile home 16 inches, a height he said would help him avoid getting water in his living room.
He’d been watching the water steadily fill a nearby yard while he’d been working, he said.
Monica Gaines was more cautious. “We’re leaving. By tomorrow, you are going to need a boat to get in and out of here,” she said.
Parish officials who had been consumed by flooding in western St. Tammany on Friday and Saturday shifted their focus to the east, moving the parish’s Emergency Operations Center from Covington to Slidell on Sunday afternoon.
As residents in the eastern part of the parish prepared for the onslaught, homeowners returned to flooded neighborhoods in the western half. In Tallow Creek subdivision west of Covington, receding floodwaters finally made the road passable for four-wheelers, trucks and SUVs.
Many said they felt grateful after assessing the damage to their homes, wading through muddy water less than 2 feet high that had flowed from the area’s ponds into driveways and yards but in some cases stopping short of entering homes.
Others weren’t so fortunate and were lugging wet carpets, towels and soggy belongings outside to dry in the sunshine.
Tom Faherty, who works for a marine products manufacturing company, was one of them.
Faherty, 60, had rescued his son, daughter-in-law and 12-year-old grandson by boat Saturday morning as the floodwaters started to rise. He returned to help his son assess the damage.
“We left midday yesterday and were just able to get back in,” Faherty said, adding that he had called a neighbor, gotten a kayak and rescued his family members “one at a time.”
On the way, he added, he alerted the local fire department about Tallow Creek’s rising waters.
“We kept thinking maybe it would stop, but it didn’t,” he said.
As Faherty and neighbors began the long process of cleaning up, others were seen driving or boating around the development to help neighbors leave houses or collect belongings.
“People were trying to get the hell out of here,” said Steven Moore, 45, who works for a food distribution company and had been driving his four-wheeler through floodwaters all morning. “I’ve been running back and forth.”
Those who were tallying the damage Sunday were calm in the aftermath. “You have to remove the floors, the Sheetrock and just hope for the best,” Faherty said.
The parish will do its own damage assessment Monday after mapping the affected areas in western St. Tammany on Sunday. Parish President Pat Brister said two-person teams will be dispatched to each area to make a preliminary determination.
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