St. Tammany Parish president Pat Brister on flooding: 'I’ve never seen anything like it'

Update, 10:20 a.m., March 13, 2016

Click here to read more on Madisonville escaping what some thought could be big flooding problems Sunday.

Original story

St. Tammany Parish officials on Saturday were still assessing the full extent of the weekend’s flooding and tallying the damage, much of which was hidden in neighborhoods along the winding back roads that meander through areas outside of Covington.

But with few areas around the city far from flooding, many roads so submerged that currents swirled near the cabs of military high-water vehicles, and the southern portion of the parish yet to see the swollen rivers’ full wrath, most agreed that the disaster would be unlike any in St. Tammany’s recorded history.

Even after warning parish residents for days that areas immune to floodwaters during the most severe storms in St. Tammany’s past were at risk after this week’s heavy rains upstream, parish President Pat Brister said a helicopter tour of the damage still shocked her.

“It was more than I imagined,” said Brister, a north shore resident for nearly four decades. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Parish authorities found themselves criss-crossing the Covington area, rescuing stranded residents and pets and dealing with other emergencies.

At least 700 people were picked up by first responders in high-water trucks and flatboats, and an untold number fled inundated neighborhoods on their own or with the assistance of neighbors in pickups, kayaks and canoes.

If officials could find any silver lining Saturday, it was that no deaths had been directly linked to the flooding.

Judging by the number of rescues, the hardest-hit areas Saturday were west of Covington.

Water reached the top of windows in neighborhoods along U.S. 190 northwest of the city, and flooding several feet deep blocked Million Dollar Road and La. 1085.

On Rousseau Road, to the southwest, a tall firetruck from Goodbee had to turn around to avoid being flooded, and the houses along Pruden Road stuck out of deep, flowing water that resembled a bayou more than a street.

In all those areas, water poured into homes, drowned vehicles and made roadways impassable.

Covington itself was largely spared, except for flooding of a few streets and structures downtown.

So was Folsom, though it spent much of Friday and Saturday cut off from the rest of the parish when La. 25 was swamped. Folsom Mayor Betty Boggs, who attributed the lack of flooding to the town’s location on high ground, said the road had reopened by late Saturday morning and businesses were back to normal.

While the river flooding was unprecedented for St. Tammany, the parish still fared better than neighboring Tangipahoa Parish, which has seen catastrophic flooding in the days since strong and persistent storms swelled the rivers that feed into the area.

[RELATED: Click here to see photos and videos of flood waters forcing north shore families out their homes.]

The inexorable flow of the Tchefuncte, Bogue Falaya and Abita rivers promised more devastation as the crest of the floodwaters continued downstream throughout Saturday.

Even as St. Tammany officials worked throughout the day to rescue stranded residents throughout the northwestern part of the parish, their attention turned to the south, where thousands more were urged to evacuate, and to the east, where a swollen West Pearl River threatened that side of the parish.

The West Pearl was expected to crest at the town of Pearl River on Monday at 21 feet, about 7 feet above flood stage and approaching a record. Officials on Saturday placed barricades around the town’s low-lying areas, provided sandbags to residents to protect their property and scheduled a town hall-style meeting to inform folks of preparations for what Mayor David McQueen called “the impending flooding of our streets.”

Nonetheless, parish officials were frank about not knowing what to expect from the West Pearl, which has not seen anything like the anticipated levels since 1983.

Since then, Hurricane Katrina washed away the area’s marshes. That could mean water will flow more quickly into Lake Pontchartrain, minimizing the flooding, or it could mean an important buffer to absorb part of the flow has been lost. Further complicating the matter is the significant development the area has seen over the past decade, which could put more people and property in harm’s way.

On the eastern side of the parish, the looming threat may, in fact, be worse than what the western half already has endured. The three swollen rivers combine near Interstate 12, and the bottleneck where they meet could push more water over the banks. That could endanger areas along the southern Tchefuncte, including Madisonville, and parish officials urged residents of a wide swath from U.S. 190 to La. 36 to leave their homes before the flooding arrives.

Western St. Tammany is no stranger to flooding.

The most common touchstone is the flood of 1983, the impact of which many residents said was surpassed this week. Areas that had remained dry 30 years ago took on water Saturday, and many of those that were merely touched by the previous flood were now submerged.

The consensus was that Saturday’s flooding met or exceeded the levels seen in that storm and other devastating storms in northwestern St. Tammany, including the river flood of 1988, the catastrophic rains of 1995 and Hurricane Katrina.

The Tchefuncte peaked above 30 feet early Saturday morning, just short of a record, while the Bogue Falaya clocked in above 20 feet — about 14 feet above flood stage.

Kevin Davis, a former St. Tammany Parish president, said he had gone to look at the Bogue Falaya on Saturday and had never seen the river that high.

Even compared with those earlier storms, Friday and Saturday were something else entirely.

Monks and seminarians at St. Joseph Abbey and Seminary in St. Benedict were forced to take refuge on the second floor of their buildings as water swamped nearly every portion of the campus. James Shields, a spokesman for the abbey, said the flooding was worse than has been recorded there in almost a century.

Aside from creeping into each of the abbey’s buildings, the waters damaged the extensive hives and drove away the bees used to produce the monks’ famous honey. It also inundated the machinery used to make the abbey’s signature wooden urns and caskets, which were at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case enabling people to sell coffins in Louisiana without first getting a funeral director’s license.

Shields said he hoped that the woodshop’s tools could be salvaged but it was too early to tell.

Elsewhere, many residents were just beginning to come to grips with losing almost all of their possessions and their homes.

Among them was New Orleans police union attorney Eric Hessler, who borrowed a neighbor’s kayak to row out of the floodwaters that wrecked his subdivision off Rousseau Road, between Covington and Goodbee.

“I don’t even have a suit to wear to work Monday,” said Hessler, mentioning that he didn’t have flood insurance because he didn’t think he lived in a zone that could be inundated.

Then, pointing at a hunting rifle inside the kayak as well as the soaked clothes that he was wearing, Hessler said, “That’s about all that’s left. ... I can’t do anything about it now.”

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