Sunday 19 January 2020

7,000 rescued after 'historic' flooding hits Louisiana

People wade through floodwaters from heavy rains in Baton Rouge (AP)
People wade through floodwaters from heavy rains in Baton Rouge (AP)
A fire fighter helps to evacuate residents in Baton Rouge
Vehicles try to navigate flood waters in Baptist

At least 7,000 residents have been rescued from deadly flooding in Louisiana, with the state's governor warning that it was "not over".

From the air, homes in south-west Louisiana looked more like little islands surrounded by flooded fields.

Farmland was covered, streets descended into impassable pools of water, and shopping centres were inundated with only roofs of cars peeking above the water.

From the ground it was just as catastrophic. Drivers tried to navigate treacherous roads where the water lapped at the side or covered the asphalt in a running stream.

Abandoned cars were pushed to the side of the road, lawn furniture and children's toys floating through the waters.

And in many places, the water was still rising.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said that at least 7,000 people have been rescued so far.

He said the storm has "subsided in its intensity" but he called on people to refrain from going out to "sightsee" even as the weather gets better.

"This is a serious event. It is ongoing. It is not over," said the governor, emphasising that in some areas water is continuing to rise.

He said the fatalities have not risen from the three dead reported on Saturday. One person is unaccounted for in St Helena Parish.

Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said there was an overnight spike in flood rescues in the eastern part of Baton Rouge. Two nursing homes were being evacuated.

Police were rescuing people from cars stranded on a miles-long stretch of Interstate 12, which was closed from Baton Rouge to Tangipahoa Parish.

One of those motorists was Alex Cobb of Baton Rouge, who has been stuck since around 11am on Saturday morning.

Reached by telephone on Sunday, she said she was on her way to a bridal shower she was supposed to host on Saturday when flooding closed off the highway.

She said she had food intended for the bridal shower and a produce lorry up the road shared its stock with drivers.

"They opened up their truck and started giving out fruits and vegetables to people," she said.

Ms Cobb said some of the people stranded were actually fleeing flooding in their homes when they got caught on the road.

Nearby her were a pregnant woman and an 80-year-old woman.

"People are surprisingly upbeat. I don't know how long that is going to last because it's getting kind of hot," she said. "We just want water."

Mr Steele said the flooding that started on Friday has damaged more than 1,000 homes in East Baton Rouge Parish, more than 1,000 homes in Livingston Parish, and hundreds more in other areas, including St Helena and Tangipahoa parishes.

"It never slowed down last night," he said on Sunday morning. "For the last few hours, there has been just as much activity as at any point."

Mr Edwards declared a state of emergency on Saturday, calling the floods "unprecedented" and "historic".

In one dramatic rescue on Saturday, two men on a boat pulled a woman from a car almost completely underwater, according to video by WAFB.

The woman, who is not initially visible on camera, yells from inside the car: "Oh my God, I'm drowning."

One of the rescuers, David Phung, jumps into the brown water and pulls the woman to safety.

She pleads with him to get her dog, but he cannot find it. After several seconds, Phung takes a deep breath, goes underwater and resurfaces - with the small dog.

Both the woman and dog appeared to be okay.

As of Sunday morning, some 5,050 people were staying in parish and Red Cross shelters, said Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Marketa Garner Walters.

The governor said even more people were staying in private shelters such as churches.

Ms Walters said the Red Cross is also looking for volunteers.

In Baker, just north of Baton Rouge, residents were rescued by boats or waded through waist-deep water to reach dry ground.

Dozens of them awoke on Saturday morning on cots at a makeshift Red Cross shelter only a few blocks from their flooded homes and cars.

Shanita Angrum, 32, said she called 911 on Friday morning when she realised flood waters had trapped her family in their home.

A police officer carried her six-year-old daughter, Khoie, on his back while she and her husband waded behind them for what "felt like forever".

"Snakes were everywhere," she said. "The whole time I was just praying for God to make sure me and my family were okay."

Beginning on Friday, six to 10 inches of rain fell on parts of Louisiana and several more inches of rain fell on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.

Some areas got even more rain. In a 24-hour period, Baton Rouge had as much as 11 inches while one weather observer reported more than 17 inches in Livingston.

Forecasters expected a turn to the north on Sunday by the system, warning portions of central and northern Louisiana could see heavy rain into next week.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency for several counties in his state as it also battled the heavy rainfall.


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