TANGIPAHOA PARISH, La. – Louisiana officials were hoping efforts on Thursday by crews in Mississippi would alleviate pressure on a lake dam stressed by Hurricane Isaac’s heavy rains that, if it failed, would send torrents of water south into Tangipahoa Parish.
But both Tangipahoa Parish President Gordon Burgess and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal urged residents not to wait around to see if the planned breaching efforts were a success or failure.
“Certainly the hope is the efforts in Mississippi will be successful,” Jindal said. “Even if they are successful, I would recommend people in those zones, in those areas near the river especially, especially the low-lying areas, to evacuate and stay evacuated until the river crests.”
An immediate evacuation was called for Kentwood early in the afternoon after a flyover of Lake Tangipahoa at Percy Quin State Park by Jindal and Burgess.
More than 50,000 people would be affected by the river, already swollen, if it were to take on the extra water. The river currently is at 12.4 feet at Kentwood, just .6 inches from flood stage. Without the water from the dam, the river would crest at 15 feet. A dam break would add an extra two feet to the crest.
“I was in sort of shock when we did do the flyover,” Burgess said. “I thought we’d go to see a small area that was breached or possibly breached. But it was not. It was a wide area. It does take but just a little breach to make it a big problem for all of us. That water would get down south quick.”
Water would reach the Louisiana border in 90 minutes, officials said, giving the area another memorable flood to go along with the ones in 1983 and ’90.
“But we don’t want people wait because the worst thing could happen is people get a false sense of confidence and then if there were to be a breach over night, it would be a lot harder for people to evacuate,” Jindal said.
But a failure was far from certain.
McComb, Miss., mayor Whitney Rawlings said there was a 50 percent chance the dam would fail. He said it currently was holding, but the concern is that it would eventually give.
“What they’re doing now is saying, ‘OK, this thing might go. People need to be moving now in case it does go.’ And lord only knows if this thing holds or not,” Rawlings said.
The Enterprise-Journal in McComb reported in June that Lake Tangipahoa was set to be drained in order to “rework the dam and spillway valve.” According to the paper, the work was expected to take all winter.
It wasn’t clear, however, if the dam already was in trouble before Isaac’s abundant rains were added to the lake’s level.
Residents within a mile of each side of the river were asked to evacuate originally, but that was reduced to half a mile.
Evacuation routes to get out LA-16, LA-40 or LA 442 to Hwy. 51 and Tangipahoa Sheriff Daniel Edwards said it appeared people were taking advantage of the early alert.
“For those people who have not heeded the warning to evacuate along the Tangipahoa Parish River, we would certainly encourage you to do so,” Edwards said. “The good news is I saw people in earnest trying to load their vehicles, trying to get their vehicles filled with gas and trying to get out. I think a lot of people are hearing the message. I think they’re going to comply with the orders.”
Amite Chief of Police Jerry Trabona said officers were going from house to house along both sides of the river, notifying residents of the river threat.
“If they don’t have a way out, we will bring them out of there,” Trabona said.
Hammond wasn’t expected to see any of the flooding from Tangi River and its mayor offered up shelters for those evacuating the region.
Shelters have been set up at Hammond West Side Elementary, Hammond Junior High Magnet, Nesom Middle School, Amite High School, Kentwood High School and Natalbany Elementary