Lifelong Madisonville resident Gary Pennington has been through plenty of hurricanes in his 76 years, and he’s seen the Tchefuncte River spill over its banks in heavy rains that fell short of even tropical storm status.
But when Hurricane Isaac hunkered down over southeast Louisiana a year ago, he saw something he’d never seen before — water flowing into his brick house on Morgan and Sixth Streets.
“We knew it was coming, but we never flooded before,’’ he said. “The water came in, and we expected it to go right out.’’
Instead, the floodwater came up so quickly that he and his wife, Mary Ellen, called 911 and were evacuated by boat along with their grown grandson and their dog. There was no time to rescue any possessions or even elevate them, so the couple lost everything to the 2 feet of water that swamped their home of 53 years.
The Penningtons’ story is a familiar one in the little town. Houses that made it through Katrina were flooded. Many lost cars. And Deborah Huther, who grew up in Madisonville, described the eerie feeling of seeing alligators swimming over sidewalks and houses darkened at night, their inhabitants displaced by a storm that took them unaware.
St. Tammany Parish had 1,500 homes take on water from Isaac, casualties of a strong storm surge that pushed lake water into bayous, canals and rivers. Those waterways were swelled further by the pelting rain. Flooding was concentrated in the parish’s coastal areas, according to Chief Operating Officer Gina Campo: 700 in the Slidell area; 500 in unincorporated St. Tammany — mostly Lacombe; 150 along the Mandeville lakefront; and 150 in Madisonville.
But while the number of flooded properties in Madisonville was relatively small, the storm’s impact was big for a town of just 800 people.
Huther said that elderly residents — who she called “homegrowns” — were hit especially hard. The Penningtons were displaced for 10 months while their house was repaired. And many residents decided to elevate their houses after Isaac, altering the town’s appearance, according to long-time Mayor Peter Gitz.
Some, according to Huther, didn’t return at all, discouraged by the prospect of future storms.
Madisonville residents who remained dry through Katrina and other hurricanes didn’t foresee the need to evacuate last year, Huther said. But Isaac stalled out and water was pushed to “where it’s never been before. You could hear it coming through the swamp,’’ said Huther, who lives on 55 acres just outside the town limits.
She said the sound of the lake creeping up through the vegetation behind old rice fields was like the chomping of army ants on a National Geographic special.
Don Lynch, director of the Maritime Museum in Madisonville, said that the water came from the river but also from Lake Pontchartrain, where it moved across a marshy land mass. The surge was so strong that it damaged the historic lighthouse, breaking the cast-iron steps and tearing off its steel door, he said.
The lighthouse keeper’s cottage took on water — a first. Madisonville Town Hall, which got about a foot of water in Katrina, was inundated with 29 1/2 inches in Isaac, according to Gitz.
The 78-year-old mayor put Isaac in perspective. He remembers an unnamed storm in 1947 that was “rough,’’ and Katrina brought serious wind damage.
But he also hopes that Isaac will help revive the idea of regulating the lake and believes that there is a way to do that at the Rigolets and Chef Pass that won’t increase the flooding risk to places like Ocean Springs and Waveland across the state line.
That’s a subject that St. Tammany officials have been talking about, too, as a parish that’s outside the hurricane protection system. Storm surge structures at the those two areas are in the state’s master plan. St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister, along with other parish presidents, renewed calls for that solution after Isaac.
In the meantime, St. Tammany officials continue to work on other ways to cope with flooding, including storm-proofing government buildings.
The Towers Building in Slidell took on water during Isaac, but its first floor had been storm-proofed, Campo said, making repairs a matter of cleaning up rather than gutting and renovating.
Plans to build a levee across U.S. 11 south of Slidell and raise the road over it are going forward, and a temporary road is in place that will prevent that evacuation route from being blocked should a makeshift levee be placed across the road, as it was during Isaac.
The parish also is considering using Hazard Mitigation Grant money from Isaac on a larger project — retention ponds in the Lacombe area — rather than divvying up the $7 million pot among St. Tammany’s municipalities, something that has prompted objections from Mandeville but is supported by other municipalities, according to Campo.
The parish will soon update its mitigation plan, something that’s required every five years, and the latest iteration will include lessons learned from Hurricane Isaac, said Ronnie Simpson, Brister’s spokesman.
Isaac has also caused some storm-hardened St. Tammany residents to consider changes of their own.
The next time a storm threatens, Pennington said that he plans to send his wife to stay with a daughter whose house isn’t in a flood-prone area. But that’s his only concession. He and the dog will stay put.
“I can take care of myself,’’ he said.
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