Flood-weary Louisiana cleans house while search continues
ST. AMANT, La. — Flood-weary residents cleaned out houses Saturday as search parties went door to door looking for survivors or bodies trapped by flooding so powerful in some cases it disturbed the dead and sent caskets floating from cemeteries.
At least 13 people died in the flooding that swept through parts of southern Louisiana after torrential rains lashed the region. An estimated 60,000 homes have been damaged, and 102,000 people have registered for federal assistance so far.
As waters are receding, residents are faced with mud-caked homes so thoroughly soaked that mold is a top concern.
"It's much worse than I expected," said Sheila Siener. "The water, the dirt, the smell. Water in the cabinets. Everything's filthy. I've never been through a flood, so I really didn't know."
In other areas the water is still high enough to cause concern. In Lake Arthur, pumps and sandbags were keeping floodwaters out of the town of 2,700 in southwest Louisiana. But authorities said there's still too much danger for people to return.
In a uniquely Louisiana problem, some families are also trying to rebury relatives whose caskets were unearthed by the floods.
At least 15 cemeteries across seven parishes have had disruptions, the Louisiana Department of Health reported Saturday, although they don't yet have an estimate of how many graves, tombs and vaults have been damaged.
The department is reaching out to affected parishes to do assessments. In most cases, the disinterred caskets and vaults are still within the territory of the cemetery, although one casket ended up in a nearby backyard. In one case, a local funeral home has already recovered and re-interred the small number of caskets that surfaced.
Willie Brooks III said Saturday that he went earlier in the week to see his grandmother's grave at the Plainview Cemetery in Denham Springs, after hearing on social media that one woman said her mom's vault was gone.
"The vault was completely gone," Brooks said. Instead there was just a hole where his grandmother's vault used to be. "It could be down the street. It could be in the Amite River. I don't know."
Brooks was born and raised in Louisiana and he's heard of this happening before but never to this extent: "It's like a horror movie."
In southern Louisiana, the water table is so high that people generally cannot be buried six feet under. Caskets are often encased in vaults that are partially above ground, said Zeb Johnson, with the Calcasieu Parish coroner's office, who has extensive experience with recovering caskets scattered by flooding or hurricanes.
In Livingston Parish, which was hard-hit by the floods, John Marston from the coroner's office said they've received reports of about 30 caskets unearthed, and they anticipate finding more when waters recede off the southern part of the parish.
"As the water table gets high and the ground gets saturated, it's just like a boat. It's going to float," he said.
The problem is so widespread that the government is asking people who have seen any problems with cemeteries as a result of flooding to contact local law enforcement.
In other areas the search for the living goes on.
Search teams went house to house Saturday in Ascension Parish and will continue the search Sunday, said Brant L. Thompson from the State Fire Marshal's office. Thompson said aerial surveys Saturday indicated that waters in lower Livingston Parish had receded enough to allow them to search neighborhoods that were off limits due to high water earlier.
"They're covering a lot of territory," Thompson said.
Breaking down the various parishes where floods swept through on a grid, search teams have been knocking on doors, checking for signs of life like fresh tire tracks or debris piled up indicating someone is already inside cleaning things out. They hope for the best but with floods this catastrophic that caught many by surprise, they're also prepared for the worst.
"If we go by and this house has waterline up to the roof line, no one's been there, there's no trash piled out by the road, we want to check that house to see if anyone inside that, maybe, perished," said Clint Sistrunk, a firefighter.
He and colleagues from of the Monroe Fire Department in northern Louisiana arrived Wednesday, part of waves of first responders who have been coming in from all over the state and country to help Louisiana. Another team is expected Sunday from Tennessee, Thompson said.
Driving through neighborhoods where pools of water still stand outside and families are ripping out carpets and carrying water-logged sofas to the curb, the searchers are looking for houses with little activity.
In many areas the water is still so high that people are rowing boats out to their houses to see what the situation is like inside.
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