BELLE CHASSE, La. (AP) — As water lapped over a levee, officials rushed to evacuate more than 100 nursing home residents from Plaquemines Parish, an area with a reputation for weathering storms and perhaps the hardest place hit by Isaac. In this hardscrabble, mostly rural parish, even the sick and elderly are hardened storm veterans.
“I don’t think we had to evacuate to begin with,” said Romaine Dahl, 59, as he sat in a wheelchair, waiting to be loaded into an ambulance and taken to a naval base. “The weather was a hell of a lot worse last night (Tuesday) than it is now.”
Officials said the rising water was only two miles away and they had to act fast, and they didn’t want to take any chances in an area long exposed to disasters.
Ever since the Mississippi River laid down this spit of silt and swamp grass, wind and water have conspired to drag it into the sea. And for almost as long, the oystermen, river pilots and others who call it home have refused to let go.
That attitude frustrates authorities, particularly after as many as 70 people had to be rescued.
Capt. Michael Martin, the second in charge in the parish, said the conditions were tough for the search and rescue.
“Even though after Katrina a lot of people said, ‘Oh, we’ll never stay,’ a lot of people did stay and now they’re regretting it,” he said.
As water spilled over the top of a critical levee Wednesday, this thinly populated parish south of New Orleans was already inundated by Isaac’s punishing downpour, stranding some residents in their homes and forcing more to flee.
“We didn’t think it was going to be like that,” electrician Joshua Brockhaus said after rescuing flood-stranded neighbors in his boat. “The storm stayed over the top of us. For Katrina, we got 8 inches of water. Now we have 13 feet.”
Plaquemines, a mostly rural fishing and farming community threaded by the Mississippi and known for its rough-and-tumble residents, is proud of its ability to withstand and recover after hurricanes. But it has always been a tenuous struggle on this perilously exposed ribbon of earth, a place nearly entirely below sea level. It’s as much water as it is land.
The water that washes through it and around it supplies Plaquemines with much of its livelihood, with the protection of the mostly local levees to keep the tides at bay. It makes for surreal sights and sounds. When the river is high, drivers on the highways can be startled by huge ships that appear to be floating above them across the levee.
Officials worried about the storm surge also ordered a mandatory evacuation for the west bank of the Mississippi River below Belle Chasse, the community that is home to the largest share of the parish’s nearly 24,000 residents. The order affected about 3,000 people, including the Riverbend Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
They were lined up in the nursing home hall, with their names and birth dates attached to their shirts. People of all ages were getting them ready to go.
“I feel like I should help out,” said 12-year-old Trevelle Bivalacqua, who has relatives that work at the home. “I will want to be helped out when I’m older, so I just help them out.”
AP National Writer Adam Geller in New York contributed to this report.