BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – Thousands of people in southern Louisiana hunkered down in shelters Monday, forced out of their homes by intense flooding that took many people by surprise.
At least six people were killed. The weather had improved from the torrential downpours that began Friday but rivers and creeks in many areas were still way above flood stage, and people downstream eyed the deluge with concern.
Across southern Louisiana, residents have been scrambling to get to safety as rivers and creeks burst their banks, swollen from days of heavy rain that in some areas came close to 2 feet over a 48-hour period. Rescuers evacuated more than 20,000 people since the flooding started Friday and more than 10,000 people were in shelters as of late Sunday, according to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.
In high-water vehicles, boats and helicopters, emergency crews hurried to rescue scores of people and the governor warned it was not over.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Barbara Manuel, 41, speaking on the side of the road as she was about to get in a National Guard vehicle.
On Sunday, Manuel saw a little sun, giving her hope that the worst of the flooding was over. But then the skies ripped open, the lights in her house started to flicker and with 3 feet of water outside threatening to come in, she knew it was time to get out with her two children – a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.
“As long as my kids are safe, that’s all that matters,” she said.
From the air, homes looked more like little islands surrounded by flooded fields. Farmland was covered, streets descended into impassable pools of water, shopping centers 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.
The low pressure system moved into Texas, but the National Weather Service warned that there’s still danger of fresh floods, as swollen rivers drain toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Rivers in the Baton Rouge area have started to fall, but still remained above flood stage setting record levels over the weekend, the National Weather Service said Monday.
“The rivers and streams north of Interstate 12 have crested and have started to drop, while those south of the interstate continue to rise,” meteorologist Mike Efferson said. He said the Baton Rouge area could see up to a half-inch of rain Monday.
The Comite River just east of Baton Rouge dropped nearly 2 feet by Monday from the 34-feet over the weekend. Flood stage is 20 feet.
The Amite River at Denham Springs was at 43.5 feet Monday after reaching 46.2 feet. Flood stage is 29 feet.
The federal government declared a major disaster, specifically in the parishes of Tangipahoa, St. Helena, East Baton Rouge and Livingston. More parishes could be added as assessments are done, and officials are advising residents to document all their damage.
Gov. Edwards said President Barack Obama called him and said the people of southern Louisiana were in his thoughts and prayers.
Edwards called on people to refrain from going out to “sightsee” even as the weather gets better.
Six people have died, Devin George, the state registrar for vital records, said Monday.
Authorities worked throughout Sunday to rescue people from cars stranded on a miles-long stretch of Interstate 12. The governor said on Twitter late in the day that everyone had been rescued.
Hundreds of people were gathered at Celtic Media Centre in Baton Rouge, some coming in by bus and others by helicopter.
Matthew and Rachel Fitzpatrick, from Brandon, Mississippi, hopped off one of the choppers with her grandparents. The couple had been visiting family in Baton Rouge when the flooding started. They found temporary refuge at Hebron Baptist Church but became trapped by floodwaters Saturday night.
People at the church used boats and big trucks to rescue others and bring them to the church, where helicopters started picking them up and flying them to safety Sunday.
“Everybody is just tired and nervous and wanting to see what kind of damage they have to their home,” Rachel said.
The evacuees included the governor and his family, who were forced to leave the Governor’s Mansion when chest-high water filled the basement and electricity was shut off.
___Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Bill Fuller in New Orleans contributed to this report.