BATON ROUGE, La. – As the Louisiana floodwaters swallowed Lyn Gibson’s two-story home, she hacked away on a hole near the roof, desperately trying to get to safety.
She used a saw, a screwdriver and her feet, knocking her way through wood, vinyl and sheet rock.
“I just kept picking and hitting and prying until I could get a hole big enough,” the slightly-built, 115-pound woman said. “I would saw for a while. I’d kick at it for a while.”
Eventually, Gibson made it out of her Tangipahoa Parish home with her dogs, and they were all rescued by National Guard soldiers on a boat. It was one of thousands of rescues after a deluge dropped more than a foot of rain on parts of southeast Louisiana, submerging roads, cars and homes.
At least three people were killed across the state, and the rescues were continuing late Saturday, including missions by crews in high-water vehicles who went car to car to pluck motorists from a flood-soaked interstate. Maj. Doug Cain from the Louisiana State Police said about 125 vehicles were stranded on a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 12 near Baton Rouge and the occupants were being taken to safety.
In one dramatic moment earlier in the day, two men on a boat pulled a woman from a car that was almost completely underwater, according to video by WAFB. The woman, who is not initially visible on camera, yells from inside the car: “Oh my god, I’m drowning.”
One of the rescuers, David Phung, jumps into the brown water and pulls the woman to safety. She pleads with Phung to get her dog, but he can’t find it. After several seconds, Phung takes a deep breath, goes underwater and resurfaces — with the small dog.
Both the woman and dog appeared to be OK.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards declared a state of emergency, calling the floods “unprecedented” and “historic.” He and his family were even forced to leave the Governor’s Mansion when chest-high water filled the basement and electricity was shut off.
“That’s never happened before,” said the governor, whose family relocated to a state police facility in the Baton Rouge area.
Rivers and their tributaries swelled and bulged beyond their banks.
During an aerial tour, an Associated Press reporter saw homes in parts of rural Tangipahoa Parish that looked like little islands among flooded fields. Farmland was covered and streets descended into impassable pools of water.
In the Livingston Parish city of Denham Springs, a suburb of Baton Rouge, entire shopping centres were inundated, only roofs of cars peeking above the water. And in many places, the water was still rising, with days expected before rivers were expected to crest.
“This is an ongoing event. We’re still in response mode,” Edwards said, urging residents to heed warnings to evacuate and be prepared for a disaster that could last for several days.
Earlier in the day, Edwards said more than 1,000 people had been rescued. That number appeared to at least double by the end of the day, when Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard said 2,000 people in his parish alone had been rescued, and more people still await help.
“We haven’t been rescuing people. We’ve been rescuing subdivisions,” he said. “It has not stopped at all today.”
Beginning Friday, 6 to 10 inches of rain fell on parts of Louisiana and several more inches of rain fell on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service. Some areas got even more rain. In a 24-hour period, Baton Rouge had as much as 11 inches while one weather observer reported more than 17 inches in Livingston.
The system is expected to turn to the north Sunday and portions of central and northern Louisiana could see heavy rain into next week.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant declared a state of emergency for several counties in his state as it also battled the heavy rainfall.
In Baker, just north of Baton Rouge, residents were rescued by boats or waded through waist-deep, snake-infested water to reach dry ground. Dozens of them awoke Saturday morning on cots at a makeshift Red Cross shelter only a few blocks from their flooded homes and cars.
John Mitchell, 23, said he swam to safety with his pit bull after police officers in a boat picked up his 20-year-old girlfriend, her 1 year-old daughter and Mitchell’s father.
“This is the worst it’s been, ever,” Mitchell said. “We tried to wait it out, but we had to get out.”
Mitchell fears he lost their trailer home and his car, which was flooded up to the seats. A bag of clothes was all he had time to save as the water levels rapidly rose.
Shanita Angrum, 32, said she called 911 on Friday morning when she realized flood waters had trapped her family in their home. A police officer carried her 6-year-old daughter, Khoie, on his back while she and her husband waded behind them for what “felt like forever.”
“Snakes were everywhere,” she said. “The whole time I was just praying for God to make sure me and my family were OK.”
The body of a woman from Amite was recovered Saturday from the Tickfaw River, according to Michael Martin, chief of operations for the St. Helena Sheriff’s Office.
The woman, her husband and the woman’s mother-in-law were driving on a state highway Friday when their car was swept off the road. The woman’s husband and mother-in-law clung to a tree for hours before they were rescued Saturday, Martin said.
A man died Friday after slipping into a flooded ditch near the city of Zachary, said East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s spokesman Casey Rayborn Hicks, who identified the victim as William Mayfield, 68. And the body of Samuel Muse, 54, was found in St. Helena Parish, where crews pulled him from a submerged pickup on Louisiana Highway 10, authorities said.
Numerous rivers in southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi were overflowing. The governor said some were expected to crest more than 4 feet above previous records. Officials were not sure just how widespread the damage would be.
The Tickfaw River, just south of the Mississippi state line in Liverpool, Louisiana, was already at the highest level ever recorded.
In southwest Mississippi, Leroy Hansford, his wife and stepson were among those rescued near Gloster, which had more than 14 inches of rain, when the nearby Beaver Creek rose quickly overnight.
“We woke up and the water kept on coming,” Hansford said. “It came up to my waist.”
Fuller reported from New Orleans.