BATON ROUGE — The waters and the death toll continued to rise Tuesday in rain-battered Louisiana, as flooding of historic levels swept anew into some communities and stubbornly lingered in hundreds more.
The scope of the disaster was unprecedented, officials said. At least 40,000 homes had been damaged, Louisiana’s governor said, and 11 people have been killed since two feet of rain began falling Thursday night.
More than 10,000 people were in shelters, miles of roads remained impassable, the start of the school year was canceled and first responders began the grim work of door-to-door inspections to check for drowning victims.
Frantic relatives inundated social media, asking for help for those still stuck and those they couldn’t find.
“I don’t know that we have a good handle on the number of people who are missing,” Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said at a news briefing Tuesday afternoon. The number of those stranded and still needing rescue “was next to impossible to say,” said Mike Steele, a spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, “and it’s changing every minute.”
Parishes with heavy damage imposed a curfew to keep the streets clear at night, and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office said in a statement posted to Facebook that between Monday night and Tuesday night, about 10 people had been arrested for looting in the parish. This included four men who the sheriff’s office said broke into a Dollar General store and stole $ 750 worth of supplies.
Officials pleaded with people to stay out of neighborhoods still hip high in muddy water. Volunteers set forth in flatboats and canoes anyway, plucking the trapped from newly flooded Ascension Parish, southeast of Baton Rouge.
When they got to Joy Garon, the flooding had already chased her from a home she thought was safe on high ground to a cousin’s house. She woke up Tuesday morning to find the water licking at the front door.
Garon, 46, was tearful when she climbed down from an armored vehicle that had picked her up from a volunteer boater and brought her to dry land. She was with her 74-year-old father and her husband and 16-year-old son and headed to yet another house that was still dry — so far.
“I’m devastated,” she said. “I lost everything.”
Redell Smith said he had been working the waters for four days and estimated that he had rescued about 300 people as part of the “Cajun Navy” of volunteers using social media to search for the trapped.
Steele said about 30,000 have been rescued by personnel with the National Guard, wildlife and fisheries, state police, state fire marshals and local agencies.
In some places, the water had receded, leaving a coating of mud and cars parked haphazardly wherever their owners managed to leave them, on median strips and even in the middle of moving traffic lanes. Cleanup began in some neighborhoods, with mounting piles of sodden furniture dragged to the curb on block after block.
Elsewhere, the water refused to leave. A half-built apartment building in one part of the city was now half-submerged. In the parking lot of an Albertsons grocery store, aluminum skiffs floated next to swamped cars. Barely visible tops of stop signs hinted that what now appears to be a river was actually a street.
Bethany and Ben Ash left home with their two young children on Friday as rain kept falling and the flood warnings grew more dire. They brought only what they stuffed in their car — some clothes, books, toys, a computer, iPad, phones and a carton of milk — along with their two dogs, a Chihuahua and a dachshund.
“There’s this thought in my mind, we just need essentials,” Bethany Ash said. “We’ll be back in a couple of days.”
Hours after they left their home, she watched a television news reporter interview a man who had swum down their street in chest-deep water. The last update she got on her house was from a family member who had seen her neighborhood on the news.
“All you could see was rooftops,” she said.
Floodwater has shuttered businesses, schools and government offices in and around Baton Rouge, a city already reeling after a brutal summer. In July, a police officer fatally shot a black man outside a convenience store, sparking tense protests. Not long after, a gunman shot and killed three police officers on the capital’s streets.
Some who scrambled from their homes into uncertain futures asked why their plight had not received more widespread national attention.
W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, touched on those concerns at the news conference Tuesday, but he assured Louisianians that the federal government was deeply aware of the breadth of the flooding. President Obama’s federal declaration disaster for Louisiana has been extended to 20 parishes, opening up federal funds to help with home repairs, losses and other damage.
Inside the emergency shelter in Ascension Parish, evacuees said they were being well cared for as they awaited whatever comes next. There was plenty of water, food, first aid and donated clothes, plus toys for the kids and generous air conditioning to stave off the August heat.
But no one had much more than a few bags of belongings, hastily gathered on the way out the door. And everyone had a story of escape, and amid the rows of cots, everyone could tick off a list of what was left behind.
Ed Martin, 69, lives in Prairieville on a property that backs up to Bayou Manchac.
He woke up in four inches of water on Sunday. By lunchtime, it was thigh high and still rising fast, and when the National Guard arrived to help, he agreed it was time to go.
Martin figured that he has lost his home and his vehicles, a conversion van and a 1980 El Camino. He recalled his calculations over the cost of flood insurance and his decision not to buy it.
“Too late now,” he said.
He shrugged. “I just bought a brand-new 70-inch TV. Watched it twice,” he said. “What am I going to do about it? I’m not God, and I’m not the weatherman.”
Jayda Guidry fled her home on Sunday before dawn when her neighbor alerted her to the rising water. She had lost her job at Walmart and now was worried about what else she might lose.
She’s behind on bills. Her husband has a good job at an oil refinery, but his employer warned that he had to show up to work on Tuesday. The clothes he needed were at home, and retrieving them meant leaving the shelter they had found to risk becoming stranded in the submerged streets.
“I’m just lost. I don’t know what to do,” said Guidry, 48, sitting on a folding chair outside a gymnasium converted into an emergency shelter in Ascension Parish. “I feel like I’m going to have a heart attack.”
She needed to know what had happened to her house, and her husband needed to go to work. The family decided to caravan home, a 20-mile trip that took longer than two hours.
“I’m going home to see if I have a home,” Guidry said.
In halting traffic, Guidry and her family inched through the patchwork of wet and dry land, leaving behind one stretch of brightly lit strip malls for a flood zone where the power was out and shimmering water crept up toward the road.
Mud coated streets on the way into their neighborhood, and two cars were left abandoned at an intersection, cocked at odd angles. A block from their house, two people walked in the street, dragging bulging plastic bags.
But Guidry’s street was dry. Her neighbors’ lights were on. And when she opened the door to her house, she found it just as she had left it. In the living room, a U-shaped couch faced a large flat-screen television. On the wall, a certificate hailed her 15 years of work at Walmart.
“It looks fine,” she said, smiling and crediting God with her good fortune. “I ain’t worried no more.”
The highest rainfall forecasts from the weather service at this point had called for close to 10 inches in the New Orleans area through Saturday morning. According to preliminary data released by the weather service on Sunday, more than 20 inches had fallen in parts of Louisiana around Baton Rouge.
“The scope of this disaster is very similar [to Hurricane Katrina], with helicopter rescues, the need for shelter,” said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness.
Steele said he was hopeful that authorities would be better coordinated, saying that the “critical communication breakdown that happened during Katrina is not a factor this time.” He added: “But the stress levels and work levels are the same.”
Shelters have been opened across Louisiana. Government offices in more than two dozen parishes across the state would remain closed Tuesday, officials said. Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge had closed its campus on Monday and canceled freshman orientation for new students, but school officials partially reopened the campus Tuesday for some activities.
Mark Berman reported from Washington. Sarah Netter in Slidell, La., and Angela Fritz in Washington contributed to this story.[This story has been updated.]