The first call came in about 4:45 a.m. March 11, a Friday. A woman and her grandson needed help getting out of their home on Jakes Road in northwestern St. Tammany Parish.
The house sits next to a small stream known as the Baby Tchefuncte, and overnight water had risen several feet and trapped the pair in the middle of a stiff current.
Two Sheriff’s Office deputies on patrol in the area — Cpl. Bubba Stipe and Cpl. Sid Jenkins — arrived at the milelong drive leading to the house about the same time. Hopping into Jenkins’ pickup, they started down the road. Soon, the water was too high to risk driving farther, so they started walking.
By the time they were within sight of the house, the water was up to their waists, and the current was strong. As they decided to turn around, Jenkins lost his footing, slipping under the water.
Stipe reached for him, and then he “felt the road wash away under me.”
Unable to touch the bottom and weighted down by their heavy belts, the two deputies were pushed by the current into some nearby trees, where they held on for their lives.
Jenkins lost his duty belt. Stipe, clinging to a pine tree that was swaying in the current, used his cellphone to dial 911.
It was the opening drama in a weeklong struggle against rising waters in St. Tammany Parish that defied predictions from the start.
Places that had never before flooded found themselves under several feet of water; people who had never considered flooding a danger had to be rescued by boat and high-water vehicle; and expectations of a devasating 21-foot crest along the West Pearl River never materialized.
With the flood largely in the rearview mirror, parish officials and experts are sifting through the data that are starting to trickle in. But even at this early stage, many are saying it’s time to reconsider the forecasting models that determine how the parish prepares for major weather events.
Fast rise in the west
What happened in western St. Tammany was a classic flash flood, said Tulane University hydrologist Stephen Nelson. More than a foot of rain filled creeks, bayous and rivers in Tangipahoa and western St. Tammany parishes as the storm moved through.
The rivers in those areas — the Tangipahoa, the Tchefuncte and the Bogue Falaya — drain relatively small areas. So when a lot of rain falls, they fill up quickly.
Still, many people said they could never remember water coming up as fast or as high as it did.
“We’ve seen the water come up; it usually doesn’t come into the house,” said Jan Benitez, the woman who was trapped with her grandson. When Benitez checked the river about 9 p.m. March 10, it was “about 2 feet below the banks,” she said.
It didn’t stay that way for long. Benitez walked into her living room and kitchen around midnight, and the water was already in the house. By the time a Sheriff’s Office boat rescued her and her grandson Jude about 5:30 a.m., the water was up to her chest and still rising. It would get to 6 feet inside the house and 10 feet in the yard.
There were complicating factors as well. A strong wind from the south raised the level of Lake Pontchartrain along the north shore, hampering the draining of rivers into the lake, especially the Tchefuncte, which itself drains the Bogue Falaya.
Once areas around Benitez’s house began to flood in northwestern St. Tammany Parish, deputies knew they were in for a long haul as the river crests moved south. They already had deployed their water rescue equipment, which includes Humvees, 5-ton trucks and a fleet of boats of various sizes, to the west to be ready for rescues.
They were needed.
“As we were working that call, a lot more calls were coming in,” said Capt. Bryan Moore, of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office. Moore’s team followed the flood south, leapfrogging from road to road as the waters rose.
This year’s floods were different for the deputies, who are used to handling tidal or storm surge flooding moving up from the south. One deputy noted this was the first time he had seen people from the northern part of the parish evacuate to the south to escape water.
The river flooding brought a strong current that made it difficult for boat operators to maneuver, Moore said.
As the waters kept rolling south over the next day, deputies were kept busy rescuing people from areas like Covington Point, Rousseau Road and the Tallow Creek subdivision.
By Sunday, though, the water was receding in those areas, and the Sheriff’s Office took every boat, Humvee and 5-ton truck to an area near the agency’s now-flooded maintenance barn and serviced each one.
Forecasters had warned that the worst might be yet to come: The West Pearl River — which lies in the eastern part of the parish — was predicted to crest at near-record levels.
Slow creep in the east
Unlike in western St. Tammany, there would be no excuse for not being warned. People all along the parish’s eastern corridor, in the town of Pearl River and along Military Road east of Slidell, were warned repeatedly to prepare for high water. The parish gave out approximately 100,000 sandbags, and lines at the distribution sites were so long they required traffic direction.
Nearly every warning was accompanied by a dire reference to the 1983 flood that forced the evacuations of thousands of Slidell residents.
The Pearl, fed by the swollen Bogue Chitto River, was predicted to get to 21 feet, matching the record set in 1983. Since that year, more houses had been built, more people had moved in, and the potential for devastation was enormous.
There are about 5,000 houses in the area and as many as 10,000 people who could be affected, according to Dexter Accardo, the parish’s emergency operations chief.
On Monday, the Pearl crested near the town of Pearl River, falling just short of the 21-foot mark. In the town, which had braced for a historic deluge, only eight houses took on water.
By late afternoon Tuesday, water was in several of the low-lying areas off Military Road, including River Gardens, and creeping into Magnolia Forest. Other areas, for instance around Indian Village Road, flooded after that. Even in those neighborhoods, however, only a few house were flooded.
Still, many people said they could never remember water coming up as fast or as high as it did.
The contrasts with the western part of the parish were stark: Sheriff’s Office deputies rescued fewer than 100 people due to flooding from the Pearl River, compared with 700 or so in the west. No count of the flooded structures has been completed yet, but the number is likely far lower than in the west.
“The impacts on the lower Pearl were less than what would have been anticipated based on historical data,” said Jeff Graschel, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Slidell.
Graschel said it’s too early to definitively say why the flooding was less than in 1983. More study of that is needed, something with which parish officials agree.
“The model needs to be redone,” said Gina Campo, Parish President Pat Brister’s chief administrative officer.
The National Weather Service is using the 1983 flood as the model for predicting, Accardo said. That means the parish activates its flood preparations when the Pearl River is predicted to crest over 19 feet. But the river crested over 19 feet in 2009 and over 18 feet in 2012 during Hurricane Isaac, and neither of those events produced significant flooding, he added.
Several factors likely are in play. One is better development standards: Builders are designing and building houses higher with better drainage. A second is changes to the Pearl River basin itself.
Aerial views from previous high crests show “all this water diverting to the main Pearl and across the wetlands,” Accardo said.
It’s natural for a river system such as the Pearl to change over time, Graschel said. In this case, the channel could have scoured, allowing more water to move, or there could have been other changes we can’t see, he added.
“Obviously, the channel has changed enough so that impacts on the West Pearl have changed,” he said.
The parish and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been discussing the need for a new model for predicting impacts of a high Pearl River crest, Campo said.
“We do not have a sophisticated model,” she said. “The river changes over time, so we need to have the data to have the model done.”
Stipe and Jenkins clung to those trees on the end of Jakes Road for almost two hours, the water sapping their strength and body heat from them.
During that time, they watched a 26-foot travel trailer get picked up by the current, tumble over and over, and then ram into some trees not far from where they were holding on.
When a boat finally arrived, the two men were hauled out, taken to a hospital and treated for exposure before being released. Both returned to work for their next shift.
For the parish, the recovery will take significantly longer.
As of Friday, preliminary damage assessments had not even started on the parish’s east side. In the west, nearly 700 flooded structures have been counted so far, including the sheriff’s maintenance shed and operations headquarters.
The parish plans to work with municipalities on development standards to help alleviate the impact of events like this, Campo said. But there is only so much government can do.
“A lot of this was not predictable and not preventable,” she said. “Just because you haven’t flooded before doesn’t mean you won’t.”
Advocate staff writer Sara Pagones contributed to this story.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.