Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Weather

Residents rescued from Hurricane Isaac flooding in Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish

BRAITHWAITE, La. — "They're still out there," the woman said.

She was sitting on a levee outside this little town, storm-blasted and shaking and hugging a wet mutt named Lucky as 100-mph winds tried to dislodge her from the earth.

Ramona Billot and her neighbors and two dogs had trudged through the chest-deep water, trying to find higher ground, when a rescue boat found them. Now, on the only dry land between the Mississippi River and the lake that consumed her town, she worried about the remaining souls stuck in the floodwaters.

No one thought it would be this bad.

The people of Braithwaite came through Hurricane Katrina a little soggy, but okay. So they weren't that worried about Isaac, which was still classified as a tropical storm until Tuesday afternoon. The 50,000 additional sandbags Plaquemines Parish used to reinforce the levee added to their sense of safety.

But the storm was stronger than they predicted.

With the hurricane expected to bring a surge between 9 and 13 feet, and with a levee that stood 8 feet tall, the president of Plaquemines Parish ordered a mandatory evacuation. But some didn't heed his warning.

"We hunkered down," said Dean Alfonso, 48.

Around 3 a.m., the water topped the levee and rushed into the town. Cisco Gonzales, 49, had been monitoring the storm all night, making trips out to check the water level.

"At my house, it went from no water at all to hip-deep in five minutes," he said.

Just enough time for him to scramble upstairs and load trash bags with his valuables: his laptop computer, a safe, a few changes of clothes.

"I was looking for the wind and the rain," said Valerie Collins, 45, "but not the flood."

Police tried to go door to door, but the water came too quickly.

People scrambled for high ground. Some climbed on their roofs. Others headed for the ferry landing. Two people were stranded in a tree. Two pump operators got stuck in their truck on the levee. A man, his wife and his baby were trapped in their attic.

When the sun came up, the conditions were still too dangerous to attempt rescue. Gov. Bobby Jindal estimated that 800 homes in the area were flooded. Citizens and parish employees and sheriff's deputies from Plaquemines and St. Bernard rushed to the scene to try to help. They launched boats and eventually began pulling people to safety.

This went on most of the day, as boats delivered wet and exhausted residents and pets and one baby deer to safety.

"You've seen what Katrina did?" asked Gonzales, who was born and raised here. "This is worse. It rose from nothing in the street to over my truck in no time."

"You can walk for three days on this levee and all you'll see is destruction," said Alfonso, whose house was under water.

Around 2 p.m., the rescuers brought in a last load of citizens who had been stranded.

There were no reports of deaths, but the area was still under water.

The rescued were thankful as they trudged to a waiting Humvee, carrying their belongings and new lessons.

"I'm not," said Gonzales, "going to ride another one out."

Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.

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