A flood of memories

Residents recall effects of 1983’s historic high water

Advocate file photo -- After moving a flower nursery's plants to the roof of a garage, Sandy Summers, of Denham Springs, climbed a ladder to get out of the Amite River floodwaters, whose current threatened to sweep her away on Aug. 7, 1983.
Advocate file photo -- After moving a flower nursery's plants to the roof of a garage, Sandy Summers, of Denham Springs, climbed a ladder to get out of the Amite River floodwaters, whose current threatened to sweep her away on Aug. 7, 1983.

When the Amite River poured out of its banks exactly 30 years ago, Sandy Summers, of Denham Springs, had a unique — though not especially enviable — view of things.

From a ladder.

Above her on the roof of a garage were plants that Summers had rescued at the flower nursery across the street from her home. Below her, the Amite surged with a power that had surprised and almost overwhelmed her.

“My husband (Jimmy) had left to help somebody else get something out of the way of the water,” Summers said. “I said, ‘Go ahead. I can get home by myself’ because I lived right across the road from where they were.

“The minute I picked my foot up and stepped into the roadway, the water just about carried me off. That’s how hard the current was coming down South River Road, so I turned around and crawled back up on that ladder, and if I had to I’d have been on top of the building.”

A rooftop would have been a perfectly reasonable place to be in some areas hit by the flood of 1983 — the highest on record for the Amite. And the floodwaters didn’t limit themselves to the Amite itself. The Comite River, which enters the Amite just north of Denham Springs, also spilled its banks, as Butch and Carole Cason discovered along with many of their neighbors in Central. The same thing happened to Comite tributaries like Hurricane Creek, which, among other places, flooded Don’s Seafood in Baton Rouge.

The flood did not catch the Summers completely unaware. They built the home where they still live in 1976, and 14 months later on April 23, 1977, the Amite put almost 2 feet of water inside it. (It would flood again in 1990.)

The house is next door to where Jimmy Summers grew up, but he has never known of it crossing South River Road before then.

Because of the 1977 flood, the Summers had begun building an addition to their house that is raised 8 feet. Building codes added after the 1977 flood required it be 43 inches above the ground, but they went beyond that so they could use the space beneath.

When the 1983 flood took place, they placed their pet beagle on the addition, which had been framed but was still being built, with food and water to protect it from the flood. But the beagle jumped into the water and tried to follow its owners. The current swept the dog away, and they found it, still alive, two days later where it had been caught in a neighbor’s tree.

That happy discovery would soon be overshadowed by the task ahead.

“With the cleanup and then letting it dry and putting it all together, you’re basically out of your house for four to six months,” Summers said. “We had two small children in the ’83 flood, and you try tugging around two children, living basically out of an apartment that you only spend sleeping hours there, it wasn’t a fun time, that’s for sure.”

Another item on the “not fun” list: watching a television reporter describe the water pouring through your house.

That is what Carole Cason did after having evacuated to a sister’s house as the Comite began to threaten the Winchester Subdivision, which runs south from Hooper Road with the Comite on one side and Blackwater Bayou on the other. Winchester was one of the hardest-hit subdivisions, with water nearing the eaves of some of the houses.

When the Casons built the home on Shady Knoll Place, they added dirt to raise the foundation level to what they had every reason to believe would keep it high and dry. They moved into the home five months before the flood.

“The city-parish — I have a big tree by my house — they put a nail in the tree and said if you built this high you will never flood,” Carole Cason said.

The Comite proved them wrong, putting 8½ inches into the home — not as high as some of their neighbors, but still enough that they had to tear out the interior walls and carpets.

Fortunately for the Casons, dirt wasn’t the only precaution they took. Shortly after moving in, Butch Cason saw the Comite rise enough after heavy rain that he called his insurance company to ask about flood insurance. The agent told him he qualified for a $78 discount because he’d built above what was considered the flood zone, and Cason bought the policy.

The flood took place before Cason received the paperwork on his policy, but his insurance adjuster said there should be no problems. The next day, Cason got a phone call. The discounted rate was supposed to be for buildings at least one foot above the 100-year flood level, and Cason’s home fell short of that. So, he was told, be would only receive coverage based on how much money he paid — meaning that insurance would cover only $15,000 of the $60,000 of damage.

Cason felt wronged. His proposal: He’d pay back the discount for which he’d been told he qualified. When that was rejected, Cason called U.S. Rep. Henson Moore, who represented the area at the time.

“It took me months and months with the government to finally get them to accept that $78 and give me the policy that I originally was supposed to have,” Cason said.

High water has come close to the house, he said, but has never again gotten inside. Cason is impatient with the lack of progress on the Comite Diversion Canal, designed to lower floodwaters on both rivers.

“I’ve talked to numerous politicians, and when they first started all of that we went to different meetings they had in Baker,” he said. “Some people were in opposition because they were afraid it was going to kill some little snail darter or something like that. One lady I got quite upset with. I told her, ‘Ma’am, do you have any idea how many nights a person loses sleep and just exactly what people go through when that happens to them?’”

News of a swollen Amite and Comite were an abstraction to Duke Landry until he arrived at Don’s Seafood, which his family has run at its Airline Highway location since 1958. He arrived to find it sitting in a lake that had spread from Hurricane Creek a short distance south of the restaurant.

“It was two days after the rain, so we had no idea,” he said. “I pull up to the restaurant and I’m, like, I can’t believe this. We had no flood insurance.

“It’s amazing. We had people still trying to come in even the day of the flood. That afternoon, a gentleman came by: ‘Y’all aren’t open?’ No … He was, like, ‘Doggone it, I was looking for a seafood platter.’”

He’d have had better luck trying to catch fish in the restaurant than order them. Water reached to the bottom of the tabletops.

“We lost a lot, but we were persistent,” Landry said. “My dad (Roland) was living at the time, and I called him and told him what happened. He told me, ‘The first thing you do is order your carpets. Get somebody to come in.’

“I did. I got a man to come in and measure, and we still had 30 inches of water in here. By the time we had everything cleaned up, a week later the carpet came in and we were back open in 10 days.

“We paid our employees, allowed them to come in and help clean up. We still have some of the same people working for us now. It’s a matter of just suck it up and move on.”

Without, however, actually moving. Many of those hit by the 1983 flood have stayed their ground, including Butch Porche, of French Settlement, for whom that event was the largest of 10 times floodwaters have entered his home. The 1983 flood covered counter tops that were 42 inches from the floor in his home near the bridge that links French Settlement and Port Vincent.

After black mold invaded the walls of the house, Porche was able to get a $25,000 payment from FEMA that, along with $80,000 in flood insurance, allowed him to tear down part of the house and rebuild — but on concrete piers that extend 6 feet above the ground.

“I had a few coins to put in there, too, to finish,” Porche said. “It worked out good for me because I’m up in the air. I don’t have to worry about it anymore.

“I love it here. I’m not moving, and I’ve got it now where I’m not going to have to worry about it. I’ve been here for 68 years.”