The federal government has declared a major disaster after massive flooding killed 6 people, destroyed homes and left 10,000 in shelters in southern Louisiana, Governor John Bel Edwards said.
The four parishes hit the hardest in flooding that began Friday include Tangipahoa, St. Helena, East Baton Rouge and Livingston. Nearly 20,000 people have been pulled out of the flooded areas in dramatic rescue operations using helicopters and boats, with some people saved while clinging to rooftops and trees.
Authorities have frantically been trying to make sure there are enough shelters for the thousands of people forced out of their homes, even transforming a movie studio into a shelter.
On Sunday, as weather forecasters said the heavy rains had moved on to Texas, rescuers said they had begun saving pets in addition to humans, with about 100 animals rescued since Friday. President Barack Obama has reached out to Edwards over the crisis, he said, telling him in a phone call Sunday that “the people of south Louisiana are in his thoughts and prayers and the federal government will be a solid partner.”
Baton Rouge received two months’ worth of rain in one day, CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said. On average, 5.82 inches of rain falls in August, and twice that fell in Louisiana’s capital in a 24-hour period. Some rainfall totals have exceeded 20 inches.
Edwards said that he was not sure how much worse the flooding would become. “This is unprecedented, so we don’t have records where we can go back and see who all is going to be impacted,” Edwards said at a news conference on Saturday morning.
“It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better,” Weather Channel meteorologist Tom Moore said Saturday morning.
Six have died in Louisiana, multiple news outlets have reported. William Mayfield, 68, slipped and drowned in a flooded ditch near Baton Rouge on Friday. Fifteen miles south of the Mississippi border, the body of a 50-something man was found Friday evening in a submerged pickup on Louisiana Highway 10.
Several residents said it’s the worst flooding they’ve seen in their life. Even the Louisiana governor and his wife had to evacuate – their basement is deluged.
Sam Cassidy of Bossier City, La., stayed with his wife at their mobile home on Friday. The night before, water had reached waist level, and he told the Associated Press that he saw an alligator swim by. He said it looked like a “horror movie.”
“Sooner or later it’s going to get into our house,” Linzy Cheramie of Luling, La., told Fox 8 New Orleans on Thursday. “It got in the man’s house next door. He’s not home. He’s out of town, so this is what he’s going to come home to.”
“Virtually every road now in the city has some kind of water problem,” Mayor Jr. Shelton of Central, La., said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
In south Louisiana, much of the flooding centered on communities near the swollen Amite and Comite rivers, which merge east of Baton Rouge. Many residents were caught off guard by how quickly the water rose.
On Friday afternoon, Chad Israel’s driveway and yard in Central had flooded, and about an inch of water had seeped into the first floor of the two-story home he lives in with his wife, Audrey, and their 18-year-old daughter, Hayden.
Israel, 45, put some boarding around the home to keep the water out, and when he woke up Saturday at 5 a.m., the water had receded. “So we thought everything was good,” he said.
Five hours later, the family noticed water leaking into the house, and at 11 a.m., Israel said it looked like a waterfall.
“We have a glass door at the front of our home, and it was coming onto that front door,” he said. “I felt like we were in an aquarium.”
The family’s vehicles were submerged, so Israel said he and his wife each grabbed a garbage bag full of clothes and walked in waist-deep water to level ground, where a friend helped them evacuate.
About nine miles southeast of Central in Denham Springs, Nicole Graves had a similar experience. She said that on Friday, the street by her home was flooded, but her driveway and yard were dry.
But when Graves, 37, who lives with her husband Eric and daughter Abigail, woke up at 6:30 a,m, on Saturday, the water was rising fast. Her husband yelled to her that the water was rushing in both the front and back doors.
“I would compare it to standing in a kiddie pool as it was filling up. That’s how fast that water was coming in,” she said. She and her husband changed their clothes while her daughter grabbed three of her favorite stuffed animals and her Kindle. They headed for the truck.
“As we were backing out, we heard my neighbors calling for help across the street, Graves said. “They jumped into the back of his truck, and we all got out of there.”
More than 1,000 Louisianans have been rescued in what Edwards called “unprecedented” flooding. Edwards urged all residents who have been asked to evacuate to do so, saying that it is risky and resource-draining when people who could have evacuated beforehand require rescue missions later.
Maj. Gen. Glenn Curtis of the Louisiana National Guard said during the Saturday morning news conference that the state has deployed 170 high-water vehicles, 20 boats and five helicopters. About 1,000 soldiers are on the ground, with as many as 250 more coming by the end of Saturday.
Edwards said people should not assume their home is fine just because they haven’t seen flooding before. “Because these are record levels of floods, we don’t know how wide the water is going to get.”
The state of emergency will remain in effect until Sept. 10, the executive proclamation reads. As of Saturday morning, 21 parishes had declared or were in the processing of declaring their own states of emergency.
Flooding plagued this area in January and March of this year, as well. Three died as a result.
Graves and her family are now staying with her boss in a home near the Mall of Louisiana in Baton Rouge. The Denham Springs resident said her entire family has been affected by the flooding. Her parents, who live on the Amite River, evacuated their home by canoe.
“After Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t understand why people didn’t leave before it flooded. They said it happened so quickly. But I get it now. It happens so fast,” she said. “We were fine at 6:30 when we woke up this morning. But by 7, we were underwater.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Rachel Premack