Ascension sheriff apologizes for Astroland flood response

Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley took ownership Monday for the emergency response problems that arose after heavy flooding in the Astroland neighborhood in late May and promised to improve his office’s response the next time.

Heavy rains on May 28 prompted flooding in the neighborhood off La. 22 and sparked concerns from some residents that their community was left behind and ignored by parish leaders.

One problem that galvanized residents and became a point of criticism at an East Ascension drainage meeting earlier this month was failed attempts to remove a comatose man from his home on Mercury Drive. Residents were able to get the man out in a four-wheel drive pickup truck after a Sheriff’s Office high-water vehicle stopped short of the home.

“I don’t do sand. Now my inmates bagged the heck out of it, but I don’t deliver sand, and I don’t do drainage, thank God. But I do emergency response, and frankly if we stumbled on this one, you have my apologies,” Wiley told about 35 residents and other officials Monday at the 5th Ward Volunteer Fire Department station in Astroland.

But he and his chief deputy, Tony Bacala, also defended their department’s unsuccessful attempts to remove the man from a flooded home in the morning hours of May 29.

Firefighters on Monday also heard calls from some residents for a tax to support a fully paid department. Voters in May 2013 had rejected a 15-mill property tax and parcels fees for the fire district.

At the wide-ranging meeting, Wiley spoke up about the flooding and other emergency response concerns. Firefighters called the meeting to address communications issues raised by the flooding and attempts to remove the comatose man the morning of May 29.

Peter Roblin, chief of the fire department, said he is 99 percent sure his office did not receive a call about the man, though firefighters, who do not have a boat or high-water vehicles, came later with a donated boat and a Polaris personal water craft to help people get out.

Wiley said his office did receive the call and sent out a high-water vehicle.

But he said the driver had to make a sharp hairpin turn and was worried if he could make it back to where the man was.

Wiley said he wished the deputy would have gone back there or gotten out of the vehicle and tried to assist the family.

“We could have done that better. I’m just going to tell you the truth. It was the best decision made at time,” Wiley said.

But Wiley added that the caller did not tell deputies that the issue was an emergency.

Bacala added that the high-water vehicle did not leave the Mercury Drive area and was waiting for a boat to arrive when deputies learned the man had already been removed.

“I would ask you to hold me responsible,” Wiley said, “not the volunteer fire department. These are volunteers. My people get paid.”

Wiley also gave out his cell phone number if residents can’t get help next time.

Janice Brown, 55, whose son is the comatose man, said later that she did not take away much from the meeting.

“Everybody’s pointing at each other. Nobody has answers,” Brown said.