GONZALES — Fears that a critical pump station might be overwhelmed by rising water from Hurricane Isaac before the Amite River’s expected crest early Monday led parish officials Friday to call a voluntary evacuation of low-lying parts of southern Ascension Parish.
Speaking in interviews and at a news conference Friday, parish officials tried to strike a balanced tone.
On one hand, they warned residents of the possible risk but, on another, they sought to assure the public that the pumps were still running, the levees were intact, the water had not gotten too high and men, boats and high-clearance vehicles were in place if the worst did happen.
“Today, we wanted to send out a message to the citizens of Ascension Parish that we are taking precautionary measures. We do have a problem at the pump station at Marvin Braud,” Parish President Tommy Martinez said in the news conference at the Parish Courthouse Annex in Gonzales.
“It could potentially become a major problem, but at this point, it’s not.”
The order applies to Sorrento and parts of St. Amant and Acy.
The voluntary evacuation covers an area south of La. 934, also known as Gold Place Road; east of La. 431 and La. 941, also known as Brittany Tower Road; north of Interstate 10 to the I-10/U.S. 61 crossover; and continuing north to La. 934, parish officials said.
The Marvin J. Braud Pumping Station sits at the confluence of Bayou Francois and the Saveiro Canal in the McElroy Swamp. Situated in the southeast corner of Ascension inside the Amite River Basin, the bank of five diesel-driven pumps, each capable of pumping 1,000 cubic feet of water per second, is open to surges from Lake Maurepas.
In recent days, Martinez and Bill Roux, East Ascension drainage director, have outlined three concerns that could keep the station from removing enough water before the Amite crests 1 a.m. Monday at an expected 9 feet at Port Vincent.
Though the pump station is not on the river, parish officials use the Port Vincent gauge as a benchmark for water draining into the pumps. Flood stage is 8 feet, the National Weather Service says.
The first of the concerns is that, as of 7 p.m. Friday, the pumps had been running nonstop for nearly four days with no backup in case of breakdown.
Second, water from Isaac’s surge in Maurepas is going around the station’s back side and circulating into the pumps’ intakes on the front side, diminishing their capacity to drain Ascension.
Third, if that water rises high enough on the back side, beginning at 7.5 feet, water could start to swamp the station and stop the pumps.
But Martinez was upbeat by Friday afternoon, saying water on the back side was beginning to fall to 6.27 feet from from 6.4 feet.
“Unless a pump breaks or something major happens mechanically, I don’t see anything. I see the pumps continuing to gain ground,” he said.
The Trade Mart building at the parish-owned Lamar-Dixon Expo Center near Gonzales was opened at 1 p.m. as a shelter for Ascension residents. The American Red Cross was running the shelter with help from the parish.
“We don’t know how bad it is going to get, but we’re prepared,” parish health unit director Kenny Matassa said.
Red Cross volunteers from California to Massachusetts waited Friday for Hurricane Isaac evacuees to arrive at the Trade Mart, which can hold 2,000 people. Fewer than 20 had registered by 4 p.m.
Many residents were instead preparing their homes with sandbags, watching conditions and waiting for further word.
Coco Wilson, 45, lives on the edge of the evacuation area near the end of Gold Place Road in an area called Seles Point. The low-lying point sticks out like a finger into the forested swamps of the Amite River Basin and frequently floods.
Wilson had sandbags wrapped in plastic sheeting around his house with pumps on hand if the water comes up.
Wilson and his neighbor, Gary Lambert, 44, were on Wilson’s patio Friday afternoon as brown water lurked among the trees behind Wilson’s house. The men said they knew how the water rises from the Amite and when it would be time to leave.
But Lambert said water moving in from the south left him a little unsure about what would happen this time. Still, he and Wilson said they planned to stay.
“I’m going to fight as long as we can,” Wilson said.