Anxious days of watching the Pearl River swell toward levels not seen since the devastating flood of 1983 ended Monday with a crest that came sooner and slightly lower than had been projected by the National Weather Service.
But St. Tammany Parish officials and residents weren’t lowering their guard late Monday, even as the river level in the town of Pearl River began to fall and parish schools prepared to reopen Tuesday.
Sheriff Jack Strain warned residents of flood-prone areas to remain vigilant, saying problems might emerge Monday night. He said he was keeping high-water vehicles and rescue craft at the ready in Slidell.
Water was rising in the River Oaks subdivision off Indian Village Road early Monday evening.
In River Gardens off Davis Landing Road, water that had started coming over roads Sunday continued to rise late Monday afternoon and into the early evening.
Some River Gardens residents were getting ready to evacuate about 6 p.m., like Brett Miller, who was sitting on the porch of his Holly Street home, calmly carving a wooden spoon. He said the water had been rising about 2 inches every hour.
Rachel and Greg Brown were packing up their silver SUV to leave River Gardens.
“Three hours ago, we were barbecuing in the yard, but it just kept coming up,” Rachel Brown said, noting the presence of snakes and spiders in the floodwater.
Even without the specter of a record river crest, the hard work of sandbagging had left some residents exhausted and, in cases where their efforts failed, defeated.
Scott Lincoln, a senior hydrologist with the National Weather Service’s Lower Mississippi River Forecast Center, said it takes about 24 hours for the river’s crest to move downstream from the gauge at Interstate 59 to a parish gauge on the West Pearl River at Interstate 10, based on data from the 1980s.
The projected 21-foot crest at the I-59 gauge fell short, peaking at 20.24 feet at 1:30 p.m.
Lincoln couldn’t say what the difference of nearly a foot would mean in terms of flooding impact.
But some longtime residents in the Military Road area said they never saw the water get as high this time as it did in 1983.
Barry Bagert, a former parish police juror, said the water behind his former home on Log Cabin Road in Magnolia Forest was 4 feet lower than in the 1983 flood.
The Sheriff’s Office, which rescued 700 people from rapidly rising water in western St. Tammany on Friday and Saturday, had to rescue only a few people in eastern St. Tammany on Monday, according to spokesman Capt. George Bonnett.
Strain pointed out that people had more time to prepare for the flooding risk on the Pearl River than those who were hit by flash floods on western St. Tammany streams.
But rising water in the town of Pearl River and in neighborhoods off Military Road in Slidell still caused heartache for residents.
In Pearl River, six houses took on water, according to Police Chief Johnny “JJ” Jennings.
By about 2 p.m. Monday, the water had covered much of Shingle Mill Road and was lapping against Wade Allen’s backyard. Allen could hear the water encroaching onto his property but expressed confidence that he and his family had dodged a bullet.
“I think we’re just high enough here, but it’s knocking at the door,” he said. “It pays to live right.”
Some of Allen’s neighbors were not as fortunate and were rafting to their homes down Shingle Mill Road.
“It’s a lot better than it could have been,” Jennings said. “The mayor predicted that all of the homes on Shingle Mill would take on water, and there have been two. It could have been bad.”
The police chief added that no injuries had been reported.
Pearl River resident Traice Martensson worked diligently to ensure her mother-in-law’s home on Gum Street stayed dry. A group of family members and friends pulled together to help Martensson pump water away from the residence.
“The water always comes up,” Martensson said, “but it’s never been this high since like ’83.”
In River Gardens, Jessica and Pedro Hernandez were getting ready in late morning to evacuate with their three dogs after seeing the water come up about a foot in their yard in three hours. It was the first time the couple had ever felt the need to leave.
Another River Gardens resident, Louis Pelas, was feeling discouraged after rising water breached the sandbag barricade he had worked all night to erect.
He complained about the endless stream of people driving through the neighborhood to gawk. The high-water mark on his fence — about a foot above the floodwater — came from the wakes made by cars and SUVS, he said.
But he wouldn’t leave his home for fear of looters.
In midafternoon, Shantel Lankford was pulling a canoe with her two children and the family dogs, headed back to her house at the corner of Maple and Oak streets.
“It’s come up fast since this morning,” she said.
Earlier in the day, she’d been able to drive her Ford Explorer out of the neighborhood, but when she returned, it was too high for the vehicle.
As the disaster continued to unfold in parts of eastern St. Tammany, life elsewhere was returning to normal. The St. Tammany public school system, which had canceled classes on Monday, announced that school would be back in session Tuesday.
Only one school, Lyon Elementary, had sustained slight damage, spokeswoman Meredith Mendez said. Administrators checked all the buildings for safety, and bus drivers checked out their routes before the decision to reopen was made.
Superintendent Trey Folse said the first step in the recovery effort is getting children back to their normal schedule.
The parish also began assessing the damage caused by the flash floods in the west, sending out 12 teams to document the extent of the flooding. The preliminary estimate is 615 flooded structures, spokesman Ronnie Simpson said.
Until the parish is included in a federal disaster declaration, any calls to FEMA will be routed back to local governments, the parish said in a news release, and it urged those with flooding or other damage to call (985) 898-2323.