It was a forecast that was all too common for south Louisiana. We would have several days of rain. It would start Thursday evening and continue through the weekend. There was a possibility of flooding. The people in flood zones, who lived near rivers and bayous, should prepare. I don’t live in a flood zone so I largely ignored these warnings. I pictured a weekend watching TV, reading on the internet, and maybe cranking out a blog post.
The rain did start Thursday evening. It was quickly evident that this was going to be a deluge. There were copious amounts of thunder and a dull roar as torrents of water hit the roof. Again, this is normal for south Louisiana. It happens. I went to bed to the sound of that dull roar.
I woke up around midnight. The deluge continued. Had it continued since I’d fallen asleep? No, that was unlikely. I rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke up again around 3am. The deluge was still in full force. I started to get a little worried, but still managed to fall back asleep.
When I woke up in the morning, it was dark and the deluge was still going. I got up, ate a protein bar for breakfast and got ready for work. I was delayed leaving by one of the commodes backing up. This is somewhat normal during heavy downpours, although it hadn’t happened in a long time. I dealt with that, then prepared to leave, dreading having to drive into work in the downpour with all the associated traffic problems that would be out there.
I left my house, but when I reached the front of the neighborhood, the street was flooded. I was contemplating how I’d navigate through it (I drive a 4Runner and thought it would be manageable) when my phone suddenly went off with a message from the emergency broadcast system warning of a flash flood alert for the area. While reading that, I also received a text from the university stating that it was closed today and that everyone should stay home.
So I returned to my house. While turning in to my driveway, I noticed that the ditch that runs in the front yard by the road was seriously overflowing, with the water taking up maybe a quarter of the space between the road and the house. I got a little more nervous, but reassured myself that I don’t live in a flood zone. All this time, the dense downpour continued.
I went inside and turned on the news. The amount of rain we were receiving was record setting. I don’t remember what the number was at that point, but the weather person warned that we should expect floods on a scale that we hadn’t seen since the infamous flood of ’83. I settled down for a quiet day inside.
Around mid-morning, I looked outside and saw that the water had reach the halfway point between the road and the house. The deluge continued. As the morning wore on, the news people became increasingly more alarmed, their tone more ominous. The amount of rainfall was not just going to set new records, it was going to blow well past them.
In Louisiana, we talk about 20 year flood events, meaning an event of a magnitude that happens around once every 20 years. Many of us, when buying houses, look for land that is not on the 100 year flood zone, meaning that it hasn’t flooded in any event within the last 100 years. It was becoming evident that the current event wasn’t a 20 year one, or even a 100 year one, but a 500 year one, meaning that no flood chart in existence would be able to mark its limits.
At noon, the water was approaching my front porch, and the deluge continued. I wasn’t going to flood. I was not in a flood zone. The deluge continued. The water got closer. Around 1:00, with the water about a foot from the porch, I snapped out of my denial and realized that I needed to act.
I frantically started moving as many things off the floor as I could. I was suddenly aware of just how many electronic items I had lying around, how much the cables and paraphernalia of the home entertainment system were near the floor . Getting much of it off the floor meant wholesale disconnecting. I moved as quickly as I could. I have a lot of books that would be difficult to replace, many of which are on bottom shelves near the floor or in boxes in corners on the floor. I couldn’t think where to put them, so I left them there.
The deluge continued. By now the water had reached the porch and was starting to roll onto it. I called my dad, who advised me to pack a bag and come to his house, but warned that roads were closing all over the place. If I was going to come, it needed to be soon. The problem was that his place is about a 50 minute drive away, and that’s on roads I knew would be flooded. To get there, I’d likely have to take a circuitous route that would take even longer, possibly hours under current conditions. And my city mayor (I live in the city of Central on the northeastern outskirts of Baton Rouge) had announced that a curfew would be in effect that evening.
The deluge continued. I frantically packed. What to take? What would I need to live on for what might be an extended period? I threw everything I could think of into the bag. By this time, the water was on the porch and in the back carport. It was maybe two or three inches deep. In another inch or two, it would be in the house. It now seemed inevitable. I suddenly realized that I didn’t want to be home when it happened. The thought of watching the house flood was painful.
So I loaded up the car. I had to wear rubber boots by this time. The water in the carport was about 4 inches high. By the time I finished, the water was a fraction of an inch from the door. I killed power to the house and left.
And quickly discovered that I wasn’t going anywhere.
My street was flooded, to the extent that I couldn’t tell where it ended and where the ditches began. I had thought the water might be foot or so high, but then I saw mailboxes almost completely submerged (they are about 4-5 feet tall). And someone had left barricades indicating that the street should be considered closed. I suddenly had no confidence that I could even get out of the neighborhood, much less make it to my dad’s house. I realized I wasn’t even confident I could get back to my house.
I called my dad from the car and appraised him of the situation. He stayed on the phone while I slowly drove my 4Runner through the water back to the house. It looked like I was going to have to make my stand there. Dad noted that I would probably only get a few inches of water. It wouldn’t be a life threatening situation, just a nasty one.
I made it back to the house, turned the power back on, and returned to watching the news. I also started checking the weather radar for my area about once every three minutes. The deluge continued relentlessly. I grew to hate the sound of the rain outside. I talked with a neighbor who had just made it back home in his full sized truck. He said that the water was very deep and that they had barely made it through. And he was pretty sure the houses in the front of the neighborhood were already flooded. The water was now millimeters from getting in both our houses.
I heard from friends whose houses had flooded and who were on the road trying to reach shelter. One ended up having to park on the road at the highest ground she could find. She sat there for several hours until a rescue truck brought her to a shelter.
I retreated into the house and waited. Occasionally someone in a truck would drive by, creating waves of water that threatened to enter the house. I had to rapidly close the door once or twice to make sure it didn’t. At one point, what looked like a large rescue truck barreled down the street, apparently on its way to rescue someone in the back of the subdivision, creating large waves that I heard splash against the door. I was resigned to the inevitable.
And then, the rain slackened. It didn’t stop, but it’s intensity lowered. The water outside did not go down, but at least it stopped getting higher. This was in the late afternoon. More waiting. I had missed the opportunity to get sandbags, never dreaming I’d need them. I put towels against the bottom inside of the door, hoping that if the waters only marginally started to top the door sill, that it might make a difference. I racked my brain for anything else to do.
Slowly, imperceptibly, with the slackened rain, the water started to recede. I noticed that it was maybe an inch away from the door now. But then the deluge started up again and the water went back up. Then it slackened again. This cycle repeated well into the evening. I went to bed fairly sure I’d wake up at some point in the night with water in my house. That was Friday.
By Saturday morning, the rain was staying in a slackened, less intense state, although it still fell constantly. The water had receded from my house a good five feet. I started to feel much better. The water was draining away. I would turn out to be among the luckiest of the lucky. But my good fortune turned out to be catastrophic for others.
A few miles from my house is the Amite river. My water drained in that direction, and thousands of people were flooded during the day Saturday. Then inexorably, the water started draining from their lands toward the south, creating a wave of destruction. By Sunday, it had reached Baton Rouge proper, turning a major thoroughfare named O’Neal Lane into a river and the nearby neighborhoods into a lake.
By Monday, the wave of devastation reached communities to the south, threatening my cousin’s and my dad’s houses. Similar to my story, the water went right up to their doors, but then receded. We were fortunate. Many of our friends weren’t. My cousin in particular had to hike several miles through water to retrieve his in-laws after their house had flooded.
As I write this, the wave of destruction continues. It will continue until the end of the rivers are reached.
Flooding is fact of life in Louisiana, but most of us know whether or not we live in a flood zone. In this freak event, it didn’t matter. I don’t know how many people lost their houses or cars in this event. The estimate was at 60,000 last time I checked. I suspect it will climb. And thirteen people have died (again, the last time I checked). Most of these people didn’t have flood insurance. They didn’t think they needed it.
The city of Central, where I live, received over 20 inches (500 millimeters) of rain in a 24 hour period. This happened largely without warning. At least with hurricanes we get a few days notice. But with this, what should have been a mundane rain event turned into a life changing one for tens of thousands of people.
People are doing the nasty work of cleaning out their flooded houses. In many cases, they’re having to gut the house. Recovery will be slow and torturous. As I finish this post, it is once again raining outside, although it’s the normal rain (I hope) that always comes in Louisiana.