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Jean Lafitte Police Chief Details Catastrophic Flooding From Hurricane Ida: ‘This Is Horrible’

Heavy rain falls as storm surge begins to encroach on Louisiana Route 1 ahead of Hurricane Ida in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, U.S., on Sunday, Aug. 29.
Heavy rain falls as storm surge begins to encroach on Louisiana Route 1 ahead of Hurricane Ida in Golden Meadow, Louisiana, U.S., on Sunday, Aug. 29.

As New Orleans residents deal with a parish-wide power outage, small communities just outside the city and its levee protection system are being pummeled by Hurricane Ida, with hundreds of people asking for help but unable to be reached due to catastrophic flooding from several feet of stormwater.

That includes the town of Jean Lafitte, as well as Crown Point, lower Lafitte and Barataria, all of south Jefferson Parish, where sustained winds reached up to 70 mph and floodwater was reportedly between 10 to 12 feet.

Jean Lafitte Police Chief Marcel Rodriguez believes there are at least 400 people left in the area who, for financial or physical reasons, were not able to heed the mandatory evacuation issued ahead of the storm. Sergeant Jason Leorwald said the police department is working to try to make a path to get to those residents and resources to them Sunday night and are opening search and rescue cases as well.

“They're scared because they've never seen this,” Leorwald said. “They've never faced a storm like this before. Our residents have gone through this their whole lives and they didn't think that this would happen.”

For the residents that stayed, Leorwald called it a “personal decision,” noting that some people couldn’t afford to leave.

In an interview with Gulf States Newsroom reporter Shalina Chatlani, Rodriguez details information he’s received from police officers working in Jean Lafitte and explains how the situation is likely more catastrophic than when Hurricane Katrina hit the area 16 years ago.

Here is a transcription of their conversation:

Shalina Chatlani: Hi, Sheriff Rodriguez. Thanks for talking to me about the situation in Jean Lafitte, which is closer to the coast than New Orleans. I know that you're not there right now. You're in the sheriff's office, but you're getting reports and deputies. What are you hearing about the situation down there?

Marcel Rodriguez: I'm hearing that it's not good. They've got people that's trapped back there and there's no way to get home. And the last I heard in lower Lafitte is they had about 10 feet of water. But from what I just got off the phone when I was interrupted earlier, the water's still piling in. So I don't know where it's going to stop. And, you know, I'm 70 years old. I grew up back there and I've never seen anything like this. This is a storm from the left side of Lafitte. Everybody knows that it would be bad. But, you know, this is a Cat 4, from what I understand is still a Cat 4. This is going to be a nightmare.

SC: And I take it you're getting calls from residents as well. What are you hearing?

MR: I'm hearing that they feel like they’re trapped and they understand that nobody can get there, but they are in panic mode and they've got a good right to be. I mean, right now, if they have 10 foot of water, they're basically there in the Gulf of Mexico in a hurricane.

SC: And when do you expect to be able to reach them?

MR: I'm hoping tomorrow morning, but to be honest with you, I don't know. I'm going by what I'm being told. And the National Weather Service ... I'm in contact with Joe Valiante and Tim and them up in EOC. I'm thinking tomorrow morning, I don't know if I'm going to be there at four o'clock in the morning, at three o'clock in the morning, I just don't know. I know I'm gonna get there as soon as I can. I just feel so bad for these people.

SC: I understand that this area was under a mandatory evacuation. How many people do you think stayed behind and and and why do you think they stayed behind?

MR: I think that the sheriff's office, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, did a really, really good job of trying to find out who stayed. And I think, I never seen the list, but I think they got over 400 that stayed. And I would imagine every one of them's caught back there right now, and I really don't know. This is the first time in my lifetime that I've left back there where I'm not actually looking at it. I'm going by what I'm hearing. So I can't validate or confirm anything. But I'm being told that there was 10 foot of water an hour ago in lower Lafitte. I would suspect that it’s higher now. The people that didn't leave, they got some people probably thought they could wait it out, had the resources to leave. But I think some of them, which is the ones that my heart goes out, that my heart goes out to all of them, God bless them. But the ones that don't have money to go and don't have transportation to go in and are stuck back there, that's sad. And they got some older folks back after that, I spoke back in. You can't get to. What do you do? I know people must be in a panic. I’m sitting in a very secure building, listening to the storm out here in this very secure environment, and they hear this and to have them back in a trailer or in an old beat-up home as 80 years old. That's got to be heart-wrenching for them.

SC: I can imagine that this must be also very emotional for you as a first responder.

MR: Oh, I can't take it. You know, this is horrible. This is horrible.

SC: I do know that the state had requested help from the National Guard and had activated the entire National Guard and even got help from FEMA resources. Are any of those resources available for these people?

MR: We've got, I think from what I understand, I think they've got about 200 National Guard, which is — that's great — but nobody can do anything right now. You know, right now, people are in the middle of this emergency and there's really not no answer for it. What do you do? You know, the sheriff brought up a good point with me. What does it do any good for me to sit back there and drown or not make myself available? I can't do nothing. So we do have a lot of resources when this was over to go to whatever is left after. Right now, there's nothing. We can have a thousand people, we can have ten thousand, they'll be doing the same thing I'm doing — waiting until it’s over to go see what's going on.

SC: It's pretty eerie, and I've heard this from a lot of residents here, that this is happening on the 16th anniversary of Katrina ...

MR: It is, yeah. And I was in that too.

SC: Is this worse, given what you're hearing?

MR: It’s going to be worse for this for the area that I work in. Because Katrina took a turn and it hit toward Mississippi more than it hit over here. I know New Orleans got nailed with it because of that levee failure. But the truth is, the winds wasn't like this. I don't have ... I can't see what's going on no more. I was looking at the weather on the TV, but it went out. At the last I heard, it was still a Cat 4. It's still a Cat 4. That means everything that's going on is still going on back there. And the lower communities, I mean, Lafitte, Grand Isle. I just don't know what to think. You know, people say, I'm a worrier, I do worry. I try to prepare for the worst and pray for the best. But I don't think this is going to be a good situation when it's all over.

SC: Well, thanks for chatting with us and giving us that update. Do you have any closing thoughts on the situation?

MR: Just pray, you know. Pray for the people back there. You know, most of them that's going to be the worst off are the ones that are not going to have insurance. And I don't know what's going to happen.

SC: Thank you so much, Sheriff Rodriguez, I can only imagine what's going through your mind right now, and please stay in touch and keep us updated. Thank you. Bye.

Shalina Chatlani is the health care reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson.

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