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For evacuees, a long slog home

The troubles pile up in St. Tammany Parish. New Orleans plans to lift its evacuation order tonight.

September 03, 2008|David Zucchino and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, LA. — The interstates were clogged Tuesday with Hurricane Gustav evacuees inching their way home in the face of police roadblocks.

Rain was falling in great gray sheets, sending floodwaters coursing out of the Bogue Falaya and Tchefuncte rivers and into homes and cars.

At least four tornadoes touched down, and radios crackled with National Weather Service warnings of more.

The power was out, the sewers weren't working and there was no gasoline for miles.

It was a rough day in St. Tammany Parish, where two rivers and two interstates converge. Even after surviving Gustav on Monday, this sodden parish of about 250,000 people struggled to deal with calamities that weren't exactly of biblical proportions but close enough.

"What do you want to hear about first -- the floods, the traffic jams or the tornadoes?" Suzanne Parsons, the parish governmental affairs officer, asked as rain beat down on the emergency operations center in the town of Covington.

In many ways, St. Tammany was hit harder than New Orleans. The parish hugs the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain north of the city. Gustav blew lake water into the parish, flooding riverside areas and felling trees and power lines.

People trying to get back into New Orleans and surrounding parishes threatened to overrun St. Tammany. Even though New Orleans remained under a mandatory evacuation order until midnight tonight, officials in adjacent Jefferson Parish said they would allow residents to return at 6 a.m. today.

About 1.9 million people fled the hurricane. By late Tuesday morning, thousands were fighting their way back home even though hundreds of thousands of homes were still without power or sewer service in the greater New Orleans area.

Two major routes in and out of New Orleans -- Interstates 10 and 12 -- converge in St. Tammany. Parish officials took to news radio programs, begging people to stop clogging the interstates and getting stranded without gas or food in a parish already overwhelmed by the forces of nature.

"They just sat there till the state police told them to go back, but then they ran out of gas -- and we don't have any," Parsons said.

On the St. Tammany website, Parish President Kevin Davis was adamant: "St. Tammany Parish remains closed. You may hear otherwise on some media, but I repeat, St. Tammany Parish is closed. Do not return at this time and do not try to cross St. Tammany Parish to reach our neighboring parishes to the south."

Because Jefferson Parish had opened up to returning evacuees, Parsons said, St. Tammany officials were working with Jefferson to find a solution. She said St. Tammany might have to allow its own residents to return before the parish gets its electricity, sewer, rivers and roadways back in order.

As St. Tammany was dealing with traffic jams, the parish issued an order for 2,000 riverside residents to evacuate immediately. Mayor Candice Watkins of Covington, in the heart of the parish, went on the radio to beg residents to grab their pets, children and possessions -- and flee.

Few of the so-called river people paid attention. They hunkered down in their homes; most of the structures are raised at least 10 feet off the ground. They wore boots or galoshes to navigate floodwaters and reach their cars parked on high ground.

"They don't want to be rescued," said Shane "Catfish" Jenkins, a Covington firefighter who was trying to reach homes surrounded by water. "These river people have been here forever, and they don't worry about the river."

Jenkins and three fellow firemen kept trying to launch a rowboat to reach a family in a flooded home in Covington. But three times they were called away to respond to tornadoes that touched down nearby.

Outside a home, teenage boys played on a rubber raft in the roiling brown waters, enjoying the flood. Other residents sloshed toward their marooned homes, toting food, ice, water and beer.

"We're used to it -- we know we'll be OK," Andrew Chetta said as he and his wife, Cathy, waded through knee-deep brown water to reach their car from their dry home, raised 12 feet above the surrounding flood.

Right behind them was Glenn Landry, 17, who was chatting on a cellphone -- through a plastic bag protecting the phone -- as he plodded barefoot through the murky water. He had just left his flooded house, he said, because he got bored.

"I'm walking to see my homies," he said. "They've got electricity and I don't."

Kevin Kileen put his wife, Stephanie, and her daughters Erika Moore, 11, and Shannon Moore, 8, in the back of his pickup and drove through the floodwaters to reach their home. Also in the back of the truck was a canoe.

"Just in case," Stephanie Kileen said.

The family rode out Gustav in their home, which is raised 10 feet, but nearly got stranded by rising floodwaters Monday night.

Bill Kemp, who has lived on the river for 20 years, tooled past in a golf cart. The water lapped at the bottom of the vehicle. He wasn't evacuating, he said.

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