Plaquemines Parish Still Deluged With Stormwater

Melissa Block talks with Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser about residents how in that area of Louisiana are recovering from Hurricane Isaac.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

More than a week after Hurricane Isaac settled over southern Louisiana, much of Plaquemines Parish is still underwater. Plaquemines is a long arm of land that stretches out into the Gulf of Mexico, with the Mississippi River flowing right down the middle of that arm. The areas that were badly flooded sit outside the bulked-up federal surge protection system, and they took a big hit from Isaac. Plaquemines Parish president Billy Nungesser explains they've now made intentional breaches in the parish levees to drain the floodwaters.

BILLY NUNGESSER: We cut breaches in the levees on both sides on more than a dozen locations on each side of the river, and continue to see that water flow out. But we saw more water in these areas than we did for Katrina, and Katrina was a lot stronger storm than this. So we're still in awe of how this water just kept pouring into the parish.

BLOCK: And at the deepest points right now, how deep would the standing water still be?

NUNGESSER: Right now, we have about three feet on Highway 23, which leads to the oil industry in the south end of the parish. That's down about eight inches from yesterday. And we continue to see it roll out. And when that water neutralizes we'll then have to close those gaps and start pumping it out, which will be a slower process.

BLOCK: Are you hearing from people there in Plaquemines, Mr. Nungesser, who are say I'm done with this, I've seen Katrina, I've seen Rita, who knows how many other hurricanes, now Isaac - I'm going to a different parish, I'm going maybe to St. Bernard or someplace that is protected.

NUNGESSER: Absolutely and that's just breaks my heart because I know what this parish means. I mean, if you just look at the people that went and risked their lives to rescue their neighbors, this is a unique place with unique people. I'm hoping that these waters go down and the emotions go down a little bit, that we can get some commitment from the federal government, the president, to give them the protection our neighboring parishes have, in a short period of time to where people can rethink it and agree to stay where their families have grown up for years.

BLOCK: How many people in your parish still don't have any electricity?

NUNGESSER: Well, we've got about 50 percent of the parish that doesn't have electricity. We should see, in the south end and the west bank, a good improvement by next Tuesday. But on the east bank of Plaquemines, it's going to be four to six weeks before we see power over there.

BLOCK: Four to six weeks.

NUNGESSER: Yeah, it just was devastated. Everything is down.

BLOCK: We've been seeing images, Mr. Nungesser of a lot of dead animals, livestock, and also nutria - the rodents that you have down there in Louisiana. How big a problem is that?

NUNGESSER: It's huge. I've seen more dead cattle stuck in the debris. The debris is packed in some areas 10 feet high. I have people that are staying at my house, down in the middle of the parish, rescuing these animals. And I think because it was a minor storm, people said, hey, I'll evacuate but I'll come back tomorrow, my pets will be OK.

And we found cattle on front porches of people's house. In one instance, a cattle went through the window and was inside the house floating on a bed, to get away from the floodwaters. So we've seen some animals really go beyond to rescue themselves. But we have seen a lot of loss of wildlife and it breaks my heart.

BLOCK: Are you surprised, Mr. Nungesser, that it's been a week now since this Category 1 storm blew through and you're still looking at the problems and the damage and the destruction that you're facing there?

NUNGESSER: I actually - the days go together. I can't believe it's a week. And you got to realize the storm stayed over Louisiana for 60 hours. That's historical that we had a storm blowing that water in, up the Mississippi River for that long. Thank God it didn't get organized like a Katrina and blow through like it did. It would've wiped out everything.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Nungesser, thanks for talking with us and best of luck with everything.

NUNGESSER: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, speaking with me from the emergency operations center in Belle Chasse.

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