Flooding Strands Residents In Plaquemines Parish

Rain from Hurricane Isaac has topped an 18 foot section of a levee in southeastern Louisiana. For more on what's going on in the area, Steve Inskeep talks to Jennifer Hale, a reporter for local television station WVUE.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Greg mentioned Plaquemines Parish. Look at a map of Louisiana and you'll see that parish, a finger of land sticking far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Jennifer Hale of WVUE Television is in the parish, spent the night there. And Ms. Hale, where are you now?

JENNIFER HALE: We are at the Office of Emergency Preparedness in a city called Belle Chasse, which is in the northern end of the parish. Right now you still can't get down to the southern end if you're not already there. The winds are just way too high. The water's coming up. The rain has been steadily going since 6:00 p.m. last night.

INSKEEP: What was the night like?

HALE: It's been a rough night. I'll tell you what. Isaac stalled out and we were in the eye wall and we just stayed there for hours. So sustained winds for much of the night were around 60-80 miles per hour. We had wind gusts up to 110 miles an hour. So our live trick was shaking. We had parts of roofs coming off. And the most unfortunate news, the situation that we're all praying for and most worried about right now, is that we've had an 18 foot section of levee topped in an area called Braithwaite, about one to three feet of water spilling over the top of that levee right now. Homes in that area have anywhere from nine to 14 feet of water.

Twenty to 60 people are stranded right now, some trapped on roofs, some trapped in attics. Right now officially the conditions are just way too bad for law enforcement agencies to launch search and rescue efforts. So we've had a couple locals take matters into their own hands. They know the area. They can work it in the dark, which is what the case has been for much of the most emergent situation.

And they've gotten in their boats and gotten out there. They've rescued two pump workers on the job who got stranded. They've rescued a woman, her five-month-old baby, from a rooftop, and (unintelligible) from her rooftop.

The danger here is that these conditions might not ease up all that much for another 12 hours, so these locals just felt like they had to do something.

INSKEEP: You were giving us an update on the story here. We heard earlier on the program from Billy Nungesser, the parish president in Plaquemines Parish, and he told us about a couple of water pump workers who were stranded on a levee, basically water on both sides of the levee, too high for them to go anywhere. You're saying those two pump workers have now been rescued, they've been floated away, in effect.

HALE: They have been successfully rescued. That's the good news, yes. They were at work at the pump station and finished work and were attempting to leave, unaware that the levee had been topped, and all of a sudden these flood waters came up around them.

They were only about 2,000 feet from the flood station itself, but there was enough angry, swirling, moving water that they could not get back there safely. So thankfully some locals in boats were able to reach them in the dark, in these high winds, in these rough waves, and pull them to safety.

INSKEEP: Was there an evacuation order before the storm arrived for Plaquemines Parish?

HALE: For parts of Plaquemines Parish. Not for all of it. Braithwaite, the area that we're talking about now, yes, they were under a mandatory evacuation. That's on the east bank side, bank levee, which is about nine feet tall there. The areas residents we're most concerned about was the west bank levee, which is only five feet tall, and then believe it or not, despite the fact we're in a drought, the Mississippi River levees, because the storm surge was pushed up into the mouth of the river, and it almost topped levees there - east bank side is the one area up until 12 hours ago they weren't really worried about. But again, I mentioned how Isaac stalled out and we were just sitting in this eye wall for so long. Those easterly winds shoved so much water up against that east bank levee that it just started going over the top and flooding.

INSKEEP: Now, what about those 60-80 people who apparently did not evacuate and who are stranded in various places? How soon can they expect aid?

HALE: Big question. Right now it's a local rescue effort. The official word from Coast Guard and National Guard is that the conditions are still too - too rough to launch a rescue mission for themselves right now, not in their rules(ph) at this moment. So locals have been hearing about this and more and more are joining in on the effort. They've arranged a meeting point for themselves and they're launching - a couple already out there working now and more to follow.

So hopefully, despite the fact that we're still in these horrible conditions, most of these people will find their way to safety.

INSKEEP: You know, when we look at satellite photos of Plaquemines Parish, it's kind of amazing because it seems almost like it's half land, half water, that alluvial landscape out there at the mouth of the Mississippi River. I guess that makes it especially vulnerable at a time like this. But does it also mean that everybody has a boat, there are a lot of people who are ready to try to rescue people if they can?

HALE: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. These are tough people here. They know how to live with the water. They know how to live with the elements. And most of the folks here have been here for generations. You know, they know this area like the back of their hand. So if there's a silver lining, that would be it, that these folks are well-equipped. They have the knowledge and the skills to get out there and help each other. And that's really how they came back from Katrina and that's how they're going to come through this.

Believe it or not, some areas - an area called Woodlawn(ph), if anyone wants to look it up on a map - it did not flood during Katrina; it is flooding right now. Water is up to the second story in some areas. We've had a police cruiser get flooded out. So in part they're seeing flooding that they've never seen before.

INSKEEP: Well, Jennifer Hale of WVUE Television, thanks very much and stay safe.

HALE: Thank you for your time. We appreciate it.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, one other person who's been following those dramatic rescues in Plaquemines Parish is the parish president, Billy Nungesser. We spoke to him earlier this morning and he said given the amount of rain that might fall on his community, quote: "I don't know who's calling this a Category 1, but this is no Category 1."

Nungesser was at an emergency response center dealing with others, even as he heard that his own house had been flooded.

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