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HURRICANE RITA STRIKES

By Staying, They Put Others in a Tough Spot

September 25, 2005|Ann M. Simmons and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

ABBEVILLE, La. — This is a land awash in water.

From the marshy lowlands of Cajun country to the flat country south of the industrial city of Lake Charles, water covered the roads, stranded people atop their homes and killed cattle by the hundreds.

So intense was the rescue effort Saturday that even Vermilion Parish Sheriff Michael Couvillon had been unable to check on his property on Cow Island and said he feared he might have lost his 90 head of cattle and four horses.

He said Saturday that he was both angry and frustrated that people had ignored warnings to leave the lowlands and seek higher ground. This for a hurricane that produced widespread flooding and rains that the National Hurricane Center had said could measure as much as 25 inches over the area.

"The people chose not to leave after we advised them three times," he said. "Now they are putting other people's lives in danger."

He also said that throughout the day, boats were unable to navigate the waters because of floating debris that hit propellers.

"If you go fast, you can hit a log or a fence," he said. "You can't direct your boat. If you go slow, the current will take you."

Jimmy Domingues, a retired registrar of voters in the parish, and his son were among several community members who showed up with their boats to look for those stranded by the flood. He said the number of dead animals was staggering.

"Carcasses are scattered all over," he said.

By nightfall, at least 400 people had been rescued by boats from attics and rooftops near Abbeville, a town of 11,600.

But the sheriff said that by Saturday evening, at least 25 residents in the immediate area remained to be rescued. Most of them were on their roofs, where they would have to spend the night, he said. As the day wore on, those who were rescued from their homes were brought to the Knights of Columbus Hall in Abbeville, south of Lafayette. Each had stories to tell about what had happened to them as Hurricane Rita blew ashore in the early-morning hours.

Karen Pommier and her family failed to obey the mandatory evacuation order in the tiny town of Henry, south of Abbeville. Pommier said the water started rising and was a foot deep in their house before a rescue boat arrived. They managed to grab food, medicine and clothes, all of which they stuffed into black garbage bags.

"We're on high ground. We could have stayed. But we didn't want to take the chance," Pommier said.

"We never panicked. That's why people get killed -- by panicking," said Pommier's father, Jesse Labit.

Diana Toucket, 52, a mother of three, also was picked up by a boat at a trailer park.

Toucket said she and her husband were staying in her daughter's trailer when water started rising in the early-morning hours. Though the trailer was elevated 4 feet above the ground, they were waist-deep in water when the rescue boat arrived, Toucket said.

Like so many others, the couple had only a few minutes to grab some clothes, a cellphone and food.

Mark Simon, 50, a farmer whose family has been raising rice and crawfish for generations in the area, said he expected to lose almost everything.

"We'll lose it, most definitely," Simon said of his rice crop. "It likes water, but it can't take 3 feet of it."

Simon's eyes welled up in tears as he explained that he had no flood insurance. And he said his crawfish would die because the floodwaters would bring fish into the crawfish ponds, and the fish would use up all the oxygen.

He said he made extra money by hunting alligators around his farm.

"I don't know where they're going to end up," he said. "Just like us -- lost."

At the airstrip in Abbeville, where Coast Guard helicopters carried out rescue missions into the late afternoon, Nita Seymour arrived looking for her relatives.

She said she was missing 30 members of her family, including her parents. Seymour, a resident of the hamlet of Erath, broke down in tears as she told of her last conversation with her mother.

"She said the water was coming up pretty fast. I haven't heard from her since."

Farther to the west in Louisiana, the flood damage was equally bad. On Highway 27, which leads to the Gulf of Mexico, several tractor-trailers were overturned.

In the farming community of Hackberry, in Cameron Parish, a convoy of Louisiana wildlife agents embarked on a chaotic but determined odyssey to rescue 20 residents who were reportedly stranded in their homes.

The agents stopped several times to clear debris from the road and slowly wound their way toward the coastal town of Holly Beach.

But a dark, searing rainstorm began pelting the region anew at about 4 p.m. Within minutes, whitecaps emerged on the newly formed lake that had spread over farms and fields.

The water rushed over tractors and through the remnants of what had been quaint blue farmhouses, forcing the rescue workers to retreat until morning.

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