The Louisiana Floods of August, 2016

Louisiana: The State We're In

Dr. Richard Keim participated in an interview about the recent historic flooding here in southern Lousiana. The interview, The Flood of 2016 is part of an Louisiana Public Broadcasting (LPB) continuing series: Louisiana: The State We're In. The interview can be seen in its entirety HERE. The science behind the disaster is covered beginning at 14:40 minutes.

Using An LSU AgCenter Airboat For Something Other Than Research...

My house didn't flood but many others in south Louisiana did this August. I wrote the stuff below primarily for my own use but I then wanted to share it. Many of the places mentioned can be found in Google maps or Google earth. The center of the airboat operations described below is near the East Side Fire Station at 17505 S. Harrell's Ferry Rd., Baton Rouge, LA.

Saturday night August 13th, as I was getting ready for bed, someone returned a call and asked me to bring an airboat to the East Side Fire Department. I almost told them that I was too tired and that I'd come out first thing in the morning but then I figured these firemen were tired too and so I headed to campus to get the airboat. I had to backtrack because the Baton Rouge Lakes were overflowing Stanford east of LSU’s campus. I fought a broken lock for 2 hours. At first thought I had the wrong keys and kept driving back to the office to look for the right keys but finally realized I had the right ones and so I broke the lock. I then stopped at several gas stations looking for a working pump because the truck and airboat needed gas. I could not get a receipt at one place and cursed the hours of paperwork that will cause me. Around midnight, I launched the airboat on S. Harrell's Ferry Rd at O'Neil Lane after a fireman named Brian Besson put a generator in the airboat so he could run a huge, but hot-to-hold light. Brian had already been awake two days; earlier that morning he had evacuated his wife and three daughters from their new house before returning to work (someone needs to make a movie about this guy; he was unstoppable, unflappable, and knew how to do everything that we needed to do). We headed east down S. Harrells Ferry Rd. because he wanted to check the last subdivision/street to the east: River Breeze Dr. Brian and I had the only boat on the water in this area. There was an un-flooded section about half-way there, near the fire station, but the rest of the way was deeper. I was afraid of hitting powerlines. A couple of times I hit things and realized I was running over and breaking peoples mailboxes; I was afraid of running over fire hydrants. The current on the street was wicked at times; scary wicked with standing waves and white water, especially at intersections. That really surprised me. When we got to River Breeze Dr., we saw several houses where people were waving flashing lights at us. We started filling the boat up (generally with five people at a time but more if kids) and taking them south via WoodLake Dr almost to CreekRound Ave. Here, they could use their cell phones and call someone to pick them up here, which was still car-accessible. At each house, I'd get out and keep the airboat from drifting away while Brian went in and helped the people out (it was hard to talk by the airboat even though I turned the engine off because of the generator in the airboat). Most times, I'd get an ant bite or two. The rapids at Woodlake Dr. built up over time and I eventually told Brian that I could no longer go that route but he knew a way around the worst of the rapids so we started going through Indian Run Drive. That led to several more rescues. The water at the front doors to the houses on Indian Run Drive was only waist-deep but so strong that I could barely hold the airboat. On one of our trips back to Creekround Ave., a young man was waiting. He had heard about us and wanted us to pick up a relative. We brought him with us. We ended up leaving him in the bed of a pickup truck so we could take another family from Indian Run Drive back to CreekRound Ave. We returned for the young man and he led us to a one of the subdivisions off of S. Harrells Ferry Rd. I think it was White Shadows Dr. but it might have been at Shadow Lake Blvd. There were many houses with waving flashlights; we'd wave and try to shout that we'd be back. I lost track of how many times we filled up the airboat with people and made that run. It rained hard for a little while as dawn approached.

Around dawn, Brian said that his fire station was getting close to flooding and that he need to raise some equipment; he also had been awake three days and needed some sleep. I had been awake a day myself but I felt fine and I wanted to get back to all those people we had said we'd help. So we removed the generator and then I continued driving. Brian told me it would be faster for me to bring people to where we had launched the airboat: near O'Neil and S. Harrells Ferry Rd. So I went back to look for people who had asked for help and probably went into the wrong subdivision but there were other people there needing help. On maybe the 2nd or 3rd trip to O'Neil, I could see ambulances, sheriffs, and a tent where journalists were interviewing people who were walking out on their own. An ABC cameraman from New Orleans filmed one of the families I brought there. Often, there would be someone at O'Neil asking me to bring them to get their grandmother or mother, etc. And so off I'd go. I tried texting my wife Angel to let her know that I was ok but I couldn’t get a text out. As the sun came up, I could see that the back of many of these subdivisions were dry; it was only the first couple of blocks where houses were flooded and where currents were too strong to allow people to walk out. In some subdivisions, the houses differed greatly in elevation and I passed many that had not yet flooded. I tried my best to limit the wake from the airboat but I probably put water into some houses that had not yet flooded. Often I had to cross very shallowly flooded streets and probably ruined the "teflon" bottom on the airboat. Soon, there were a few personal outboard boats that could drive from O’Neil to the fire station. So I stopped bringing people all the way back to O'Neil; instead, I'd drop them off near the fire station and tell them to walk a hundred yards or so to where the outboards could reach them. Around mid-morning, Brian came out and gave me 15-gallons of gas. (the airboat tanks holds about 50 gallons; I was down to a quarter then). Later, many personal boats began showing up including airboats, coming from the east (I assume via Creekround Dr.). I guess the airboats were work boats; regardless, none appeared to be government boats or to have fireman or lawmen on them. On the other hand, I lacked a uniform and you'd need to look closely to see that my boat was not a private boat. Occasionally I would have passengers too old, young, or sick to make the walk and transfer to the outboards and I'd bring them all the way to O'Neil. On one of those trips, I saw an outboard boat that had ripped a hole in its bottom on a fire hydrant. Unlike my LSU boat, this was someone's personal boat. People were always very thankful for being taken out; the only response I could think of was to say that I wished that I could do more. One guy pressed a $20 bill in my hand and wouldn’t’ take it back. After that, I told people who thanked me that this was their tax dollars at work; this was an LSU airboat and I was and LSU professor. Twice, I encountered someone walking in chest-deep water. If they and all my passengers were familiar with airboats, then I probably could have gotten them aboard without capsizing. But instead of risking capsizing, I threw them life jackets and continued on my way. I carried out some very old people, some very sick people, one family with twin 4-year old brothers and a sister (with a cat in a suitcase); more than I can remember.

On one of my stops at the Fire Station, Brian told me that his department was shifting their focus to another part of their district as waters rose elsewhere but I continued working these subdivisions because there was always another family wanting out. Around noon, a man about my age was walking near the fire station the wrong way and waved me down; he was trying to get to his 80-year old parents who had been chased to the 2nd floor of their house. I got him in the airboat and when he described the location, it sounded to me like the scary spot with the worst rapids/current. Sure enough, he wanted to go down Lake Harbor Ave. As we headed there, I saw that the water had risen enough that I could no longer pass under the powerlines without slowing down and getting to the edge of the road. I stopped the airboat in an eddy near the intersection of Woodlake Dr. and Lake Harbor Ave and tried to convince myself that I could get the airboat in there. Getting out would have been a challenge but at least I would have been going upstream through the rapids. Entering seemed impossible because I'd be going downstream through the rapids. An outboard showed up and we hemmed and hawed. There were so many boats that I was expecting a boat collision; some people seemed to be sightseeing and enjoying driving through the rapids down Woodlake Dr. but nobody attempted to drive down Lake Harbor Ave. Finally, the outboard chose to try it. After about 30 min I saw them inside the area. Evidently they had found another way in (as suggested by the man) coming through the lake on the south of Lake Harbor Dr. After another 30 min, I guessed that the outboard had taken the man and his parents to Creekround Dr. because I seem to remember that the man had not parked where I had parked.

I decided to leave. But when I got to O'Neil, I met a young woman who asked me to get her parents so I put her in the boat and off we went. As we approached the fire station, firemen were there who didn't recognize me; they politely but pointedly questioned us. They seemed to think I was legitimate when I said I'd be happy to go home and turn the young lady over to them. They then asked if I could help them get someone who was reported to be bed-bound and needed transportation to Our Lady of the Hospital. So off we went to a large, high density apartment complex very close to O'Neil: E St. Jean Drive and W St. Jean Drive. The place was almost deserted and close enough, shallow enough (waist-chest deep), and low current enough that virtually all the residents had walked to S. Harrell's Ferry Rd and O'Neil. The firemen knocked on all the doors, confirmed the address with their dispatcher, and then broke open all the doors with no answer. There was only one occupied apartment (upstairs) and no invalid there. A boat with firemen showed up and I then decided to leave. When I got to O’Neil and S. Harrells Ferry Rd., I trailered the airboat and then noticed that there were no reporters, no sheriffs, no ambulances. Fifty to a hundred people were sitting around with no food, no water, no bathrooms, and no place to go.

I promised the people at O’Neil and S. Harrells Ferry Rd. that I’d get find help. I tried driving north up O’Neil, which is the route I used to get there but it was flooded with massive rapids at I-12. I tried going west on S. Harrell Ferry Rd but it looked too deep and there was a stalled vehicle or two. I tried going south down O’Neil but it was flooded. It rained hard for a little while as I realized I was on an island. I tried going west on S. Harrells Ferry Rd. again. First, I watched a couple of pickups bigger than the one I was driving make it. It took me a while; I passed a stalled vehicle or two but I made it to Millerville Rd. and then to I-12. The police were questioning people trying to launch on the north side of I-12 but they let me get onto I-12 West without question. I got home around 4pm, showered, and ate. I tried calling Red Cross about the people at O’Neil but couldn’t get through. I didn’t know how to help. I slept a few hours, woke around 9pm and decided to gas the airboat and truck. Again, I visited several gas stations before I could gas both. I was about to go back out but I couldn’t find motor oil for the airboat engine (I had burned most of the oil that day). I went home and slept.

Monday morning by 5am, I found motor oil. I tried driving to the East Side Fire Department but couldn’t get close. I then drove to the Red Cross. I offered to take food, water and volunteers to the people at O’Neil but admitted that I didn’t know if water had come up or gone down. But they said they had no food/water to offer and that they didn’t do rescues; only fire departments rescued. I called East Side Fire Department but they said their guys needed rest. I tried to drive to Millerville and S. Harrells Ferry Rd so I could launch the airboat and start moving those people to from O’Neil to Millerville but I couldn’t find a way there. I then gave up trying to help those people and headed 15-20 miles southeast where the floodwaters were rising but the fire stations at Galvez Lake and St. Amant flooded before I could get to them. Thus Monday was like my Katrina rescue experience in 2005: I spent 12 hours fruitlessly driving or waiting to be useful and merely contributed to congestion on the roads. I realized that without a fireman to lead me, I was useless and in the way.