BATON ROUGE, United States, Aug 16, 2016 (AFP) – As many as 30 000 people have been rescued following unprecedented floods in the southern US state of Louisiana, including a 78-year-old woman who spent a night stranded in a tree, police said late Monday.
Residents awoke Tuesday to find their homes and businesses still surrounded by muddy water, without clear answers about when the epic flooding that has killed at least seven is expected to recede.
Thousands were hunkering down in shelters after waterways in the southern part of the US state overflowed their banks following more than 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain between Thursday and Saturday.
“Our state is currently experiencing a historic flooding event that is breaking every record,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said in a statement late Monday.
“This event is ongoing, it is not over,” he said. “We do not know when the floodwaters will recede, and they will continue to rise in some areas.”
Police said the Louisiana National Guard would assist evacuees in the massive shelters, which included a film studio complex in the state capital Baton Rouge and an entertainment center in the city’s downtown area.
Water covered roads, homes and commercial areas. Floodwaters even reached the rooflines of some homes in the worst-hit areas.
Seven people were confirmed dead, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Mike Edmonson said, noting the toll could rise in coming days.
“Once the water recedes, all these homes that are completely covered with water, we got to go to every single one of those and go inside of them and check for anybody who might be in those areas,” he told CNN.
Some 40,000 homes and business were reported to be without power.
– Disaster areas –
The White House declared four parishes — equivalent to counties in other states — major disaster areas.
“I fully expect that more parishes will be added to the declaration on a rolling basis,” Edwards said.
Floodwaters appeared to be receding in some areas, but were flowing into others. The National Weather Service (NWS) continued to issue flood warnings in effect through early Tuesday, saying water in many areas would not recede at least for another day.
The Amite River, the source of flooding for many areas, had risen 14 feet (4.3 meters) above flood level in one reading, besting a previous record set during flooding in April 1983, the NWS said.
The agency forecast the river would not fall below flood level until Wednesday morning.
In some areas, clean-up work was already beginning, with members of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge dumping water-damaged pews on a growing pile of debris outside.
Inside, a young boy rode his bicycle around the now-empty church.
– Offers of aid –
The White House declaration makes emergency federal funding available to support rescue crews and recovery efforts.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Monday began asking those affected by the floods to apply for assistance, and officials said 11,000 people had already registered early in the day.
The American Red Cross called the flooding the worst since Superstorm Sandy hit coastal areas in New York and New Jersey in 2012.
Many parishes in Louisiana were collecting donations for flood victims, including food, water, blankets, school uniforms, bedding and hygiene products.
Louisiana was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and authorities learned from that disaster that many people are reluctant to leave their homes without their pets, even when conditions are life-threatening.
Several shelters in the Baton Rouge area were accepting evacuees with four legs.
Four-year-old Mariah McDowell, who was supposed to start preschool last Friday, was perched on the edge of a cot in a shelter, wearing rubber rain boots and cradling her turtle Zeus, The Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge reported.
Mariah and her family were set up next to another group that came with their five cats.
– Dramatic rescues –
The Louisiana National Guard reported that its soldiers rescued nearly 500 people and 61 pets by boat, helicopter and high-water (high-clearance) vehicles in the 24 hours between Friday and Saturday.
“We’ve literally had hundreds of people who’ve brought boats in and have wanted to help,” Edmonson said.
The volunteer rescuers have been dubbed the “Cajun Navy”.
The NWS said other areas of the United States faced threats of flash floods this week — from the Texas coast all the way up to the Ohio River Valley.
The storms threatening Texas are part of the same system that deluged Louisiana, although it is now less potent, said NWS meteorologist Gavin Phillips.