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Brothers staying put to face the floodwaters

Tommy and Keith Girouard are going to ride out the flooding on a houseboat in Butte La Rose, La. By the weekend, they are likely to be the only ones left in the town.

May 20, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Keith Girouard, left, decided to stick out the flooding with his brother Tommy, who owns a houseboat in Butte La Rose, La. The water level is expected to rise to 27 feet.
Keith Girouard, left, decided to stick out the flooding with his brother… (David Zucchino, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Butte La Rose, La. — Just about everybody in this forlorn fishing hamlet has moved to higher ground, leaving Tommy and Keith Girouard behind on their houseboat, "The Rockin' G."

But not everyone is as prepared as these two Cajuns to meet the rising brown waters of the Atchafalaya River. They don't need sandbags. They have a freezer full of Fudgesicles, three generators and a flat-screen TV.

The brothers plan to ride out the coming flood in the comfort of the houseboat, which bobbed in the soft spring breeze along the canal behind Tommy's one-story river house, "The G Spot." They figure they'll be able to guard the house even though they are likely to be the only ones left in Butte La Rose by Saturday, when a mandatory evacuation order clamps down for good.

A man from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived the other day to announce that floodwaters would reach 27 feet. That was 2 feet less than the corps' original projection.

The Atchafalaya River Basin, including Butte La Rose, is being deliberately inundated to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River and spare the big cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. In Butte La Rose, the water is expected to rise a foot a day.

Keith squinted hard at the numerals he had scrawled on the side of the dock to mark 27 feet, 2 feet below a "29" marked in black. At 27 feet, the main floor of Tommy's house would be underwater, halfway up to the windows of the room where the brothers had ripped out a huge hot tub for safekeeping.

"That water is gonna get inside the house," Keith told Tommy, who shrugged.

The brothers, and everybody else in Butte La Rose, have survived floods and hurricanes before. They know what to do.

They know, in fact, not to bother with sandbags. At 27 feet, the river will just roll right over the biggest wall of sandbags you could ever build, Tommy said.

Nearly all the owners of homes and fish camps in Butte La Rose, population 1,400 in dry times, just cleared out their belongings, locked the doors and left, said Mildred Roberts, 84, who runs the till at Ducet's Grocery.

Roberts, who was born in 1927, the year of the Great Mississippi Flood, calls herself "a '27 flood baby." She was planning to take shelter in her home on higher ground in a nearby town.

"There won't be anybody left around here by Saturday," she said.

Except, of course, for the Girouard boys — and a sign at the town entrance that reads: "MAY GOD WATCH OVER OUR COMMUNITY."

The brothers spent the last two weeks emptying out Tommy's house. They hauled away 50 trailer loads of stuff — lawnmower, tractor, jet skis, four fishing boats, dishwasher, stove, clothes — "tons of stuff; I'm a pack rat," Tommy said.

Now they were beat. They plopped down on the houseboat deck. It seemed luxurious: three comfortable bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room, seven TV sets, and a big refrigerator stuffed with food and those Fudgesicles. Keith is addicted to them.

Tommy, 57, lanky and sandy-haired, repairs satellite TV systems and sells home security cameras. He likes having a TV in every room.

When the electricity and water are cut off — it'll happen for sure come high water, Tommy said — the brothers will still have power and water. They've laid in one big generator and two smaller ones, plus 300 gallons of gasoline and five fat tanks of drinking water. There's a big cooler for ice.

"We'll be just fine," Tommy said. "My house? Well, that's another story. I might lose it."

The brothers covered the house floors with plastic sheeting — not to stop the water, but to make it easier to clean up afterward. You just drag out the plastic and all the river gunk on top of it, Tommy said.

On the houseboat, a loaded .223 semiautomatic rifle with a scope rested in a corner.

"For bears — or copper thieves," Keith said.

There's been a rash of copper wire thefts in town recently, he said, and he figured the thieves would grow bolder with the town emptied out.

"If they come here looking for copper, we're gonna give them lead," Tommy said.

They might have to shoot poisonous water snakes too, Keith said. As a precaution, the brothers scattered mothballs inside Tommy's house.

"Snakes can't stand the smell," Tommy explained.

Butte La Rose is sunk low into the heart of the Atchafalaya Basin, a swampy bayou along the Atchafalaya River, smack between two massive levees. The hamlet sits closer than most basin towns to the big Morganza Spillway, less than 30 miles north. Authorities have opened 17 gates of the spillway, sending copious torrents of foaming river water storming into the basin at 114,000 cubic feet per second.

In a matter of days, all that water will come rocketing down toward Butte La Rose and other basin towns, filling up Billy Little Lake and Cow Island Lake and Lost Lake and Dog Leg Canal and every bayou in between.

"We're taking the brunt of it to get people in Baton Rouge and New Orleans out of a bind," Tommy said. "They're flooding us to save themselves."

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