La. first responders lose their homes in flooding, continue to work

Hundreds of first responders worked long hours during the days and weeks after the floodwaters began to rise even as their own homes sank

By Bryn Stole
The Advocate

BATON ROUGE, La. — As floodwaters steadily rose in his own neighborhood three weeks ago, Baton Rouge Police Sgt. Byron Daniels worked long hours riding shotgun on a high-water truck. Away from his displaced family, he focused on others in need, helping to lead hundreds through stinking water to dry land.

The shifts shortened, at least a bit, as the water dropped. But when Daniels gets home these days, a second shift is just starting: Hours spent ripping out drywall and sopping insulation, prying up stubborn flooring, knocking out cabinets and carting it all to the curb.

Fellow officers from the Baton Rouge Police Department pitched in at Daniels' home in the Monticello area, as did fraternity brothers from his days at Southern University. When they finished his home, the crew moved on to others.

Daniels, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, counts himself lucky — though there wasn't much to salvage from his home, which took on four or five feet of water, relatives nearby took in his family.

"We still have officers who were affected to the point they're worse off than I was," Daniels said. "And I lost everything."

He's hardly alone: Hundreds of first responders — police officers, sheriff's deputies, firefighters and soldiers — worked long hours during the days and weeks after the floodwaters began to rise around capital region, even as their own homes sank under the deluge and their families sought shelter.

About 170 Baton Rouge police officers — a quarter of the force — lost homes in the flood. At the Baton Rouge Fire Department, that tally is 190, roughly a third of firefighters. About that proportion of state troopers in the capital region lost homes as well, said a spokesman for the Louisiana State Police, which opened its training facilities to house the families of 425 displaced first responders.

In hard-hit communities in Livingston and Ascension parishes, some agencies fared even worse. The homes of about 40 percent of Denham Springs police officers flooded, said interim Chief Shannon Womack.

About 85 percent of the volunteer firemen in St. Amant got water in their homes, according to Chief James LeBlanc, and the department's three stations also went underwater. Many of the roughly 75 volunteers moved into a strip mall storefront converted into an emergency command post — one of the few buildings in town that didn't flood — and three weeks later were still working to deliver food, check on residents and help rip out soggy drywall and insulation. A local church has provided the firefighters three meals a day, LeBlanc said, but after endless days of work, fatigue is beginning to set in.

"This ain't no pity party for us. We're working hard for the community," said LeBlanc, whose own home and possessions were destroyed in the flood. "If we can break away a few hours a day to work in our own house, we'll do it, but we're here for the community."

Like Daniels and other volunteers in St. Amant, nearly all of the hundreds of first responders who lost their homes continued reporting for duty, in some cases working for days without rest.

"If I got back to see my family, that's great. If it didn't work out that way, well, that's the job I was sworn to do," said Jerry Denton, the Denham Springs city marshal who drove his family to a relative's home in Baton Rouge before heading back for several days of boat rescues and door-to-door checks in his devastated community. "It's literally through hell or high water, and that's what we went through."

When the floods started closing in on Capt. Darryl Armentor's home in Walker on Aug. 12, the East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputy helped his neighbors evacuate from their homes as floodwaters rose.

The river's rapid rise stunned Armentor, a 21-year veteran of law enforcement and the commander of the Sheriff's Office's marine search and rescue division.

"I had to run out of my house," said Armentor, who drove away with his wife around 10 a.m. "A few minutes later and I would not have been able to get out. This is what I do for a living, and I almost got trapped in my house."

He shuttled his family, including his 10-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, to his parent's house on higher land, and headed to work.

"I was able to get out of my neighborhood with my truck — I just barely made it out — and came across to East Baton Rouge Parish," said Armentor, "not realizing it was going to be until the next Tuesday or Wednesday before I got back across the river."

Armentor drove first to Central, where he launched a boat with a team of deputies to pull folks from attics, rooftops and flooded homes. For the next three days, Armentor worked without sleep or a break.

Armentor and his sheriff's deputies — along with a fleet of civilian volunteers — rescued people from swamped subdivisions and neighborhoods turned into lakes. At times, Armentor said deputies used axes to hack through roofs to reach elderly residents trapped in attics.

"I've never seen anything like this as far as pure flood damage," said Armentor, who worked on rescue crews in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and in Lake Charles during Hurricane Isaac. "The water was moving so fast — that's something I've never seen before with all the hurricanes I've been through."

With cellphone service compromised over the first few days after the flood hit, Armentor spent nearly two days without word from his family in Livingston Parish. Finally, an email from his wife let him know they were all right.

Baton Rouge EMS paramedic Beau Lowery woke up at 4:30 a.m. for his Friday shift, he could hear the rain pounding on the roof of his home in Livingston. On the drive into work, high water on the roads seeped into the cab of his pickup truck, soaking the floorboards. The water was still high, but passable, when Lowery came back from a long day running calls in flood-ravaged Central.

The next morning, though, there was no driving out.

"So I called my commander and said, 'Hey, if you need me, you're going to have to come get me," Lowery said. "I'm going to have to wade out."

By that afternoon, as Lowery aided with rescue missions and rushed to medical calls in Baton Rouge, water started pouring into his home. His in-laws, armed with inflatable pool rafts, rescued his wife and their 7- and 3-year-old children.

Trapped in Baton Rouge by the Amite River, which had swallowed all bridges back to Livingston Parish and was still rising, Lowery crashed Saturday night at fellow paramedic Michael Castello's house off Millerville Road. The last message Lowery got from his wife before AT&T cell service went down was that water was rising where she ended up and his family wasn't sure where they were headed.

When the two paramedics woke up Sunday morning, water was pouring into Castello's house as well. Shocked by electricity on their way out of the house, the two paramedics waded nearly two miles through floodwater and raw sewage. Eventually, the pair — chafed and in sopping wet uniforms — hitched a ride into work from a state trooper, somehow arriving on time for another relentless shift.

"I was breaking down at that point," said Lowery, who finally received a Facebook message from his wife late that Sunday letting him know they'd found a safe place to stay. "I was scared to death because I hadn't seen my kids; I hadn't heard from my wife; I didn't know if they were OK or not."

Cut off from his wife and children for three days, Lowery managed to hitch his way back to Livingston Parish with firefighters on Monday — his birthday — to check on his family.

By Tuesday, he was back at work alongside Castello on a search-and-rescue team that spent days going door-to-door throughout the region checking for survivors. Just blocks from Castello's home the team found a delirious elderly woman who'd ridden out the storm in her attic with just three bottles of water, three packs of cigarettes and a now-dead cat.

Castello said his two kids, thankfully, were with their mother that weekend in another part of Baton Rouge that stayed dry.

Like many other first responders who saw their own lives upended by the floods, Castello and Lowery said that work has become a welcome diversion from their own uncertainties: Flooded homes, ruined trucks and a lifetime's worth of possessions reduced to piles of debris.

"Keeping working was the only thing we could do," said Castello. "It's a break. This is normal."

The halls of the EMS headquarters are lined these days with stacks of cleaning supplies, food, linens and crisp uniforms for the 47 employees who took on water in the flood.

Already a profession that tends to build camaraderie, emergency agencies across the region have drawn closer since the flood. Castello now commutes to work in a car loaned by a co-worker. As Lowery walked outside after an interview last week, a co-worker handed him a bundle of children's clothes still on hangers; he said another paramedic's wife bought his children new shoes.

For Sgt. Kevin Davis, an LSU policeman, his colleagues literally came to the rescue. By the time Davis and his family realized they needed to flee their home near the Shenandoah neighborhood on Aug. 14, it was too late.

Water swamped their vehicle on the way out, forcing them to take shelter on a bit of high ground. With no cellphone service, Davis said, he wasn't able to call for help, but he was able to dash off an email on his work laptop. About 10 a.m. that morning, a boat piloted by other LSU cops showed up to bring the family to safety.

Davis said the flood dredged up painful memories of Hurricane Katrina. Then a policeman in suburban New Orleans, Davis lost a brother in the hurricane. During the chaos that followed, it took him three weeks to get in touch with his wife and children, who fled west on the interstate and eventually landed in Houston. He drove out to surprise them, only to be called back to work as Hurricane Rita bore down on the state.

"Especially after Katrina, it's just something I felt inside: I'm supposed to be doing this," said Davis, who's worked for LSU for nearly six years. "I feel great about what I do. Staying busy, it allows me to keep my mind focused."

Bob Escamilla, a detective with the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office, said water finally topped the sandbags he and his wife stacked in front of their Prairieville home the night of August 14. The couple waded into the street with their three young daughters before hitching a ride out on a high-water vehicle.

Although he normally works juvenile and family cases, Escamilla spent the first few days scrambling with the rest of the department to help those threatened by the flood. Getting back to his caseload, Escamilla said, has helped bring a sense of normalcy to a life otherwise turned upside down: The house gutted, no flood insurance and the children living with their grandparents in San Antonio.

"We were rolling. You get off from work, go to work on your house and repeat the next day. You're in a fog," Escamilla said. "Working my cases for my victims, helping other people has really helped me forget about my house. I was ready to get away from the house, get away from the demo, get away from the mold. It's helped so much."

Amid the rising water, officers and emergency workers said they saw the best in their co-workers and in private citizens. Armentor, the East Baton Rouge deputy, rattled off dozens of names of fellow deputies with pride.

"I've never felt better about what I'm doing than how I feel right now," he added.

Daniels, the Baton Rouge policeman, recalled watching a local businessman drive a top-of-the-line pickup — "probably an $80,000, $90,000 truck with trailer that most people wouldn't dare put in water" — through the rising tide for at least 12 hours to give people rides away from flooded homes.

"Seeing how well the community and police can work together, it re-energized my belief that we can do this. We really got to see the best in people," said Daniels. "When you truly believe in being there for the community, there's no question."

Copyright 2016 The Advocate,

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