Live Chat with James Fountain on Louisiana Floods

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This was a Facebook Live video conducted with James Fountain of the USGS discussing the Louisiana flooding in August 2016 and the personal experience James had with this event. Questions and comments during the live video at: https://www.facebook.com/USGeologicalSurvey/videos/1144228595623122/

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Date Taken:

Length: 00:20:12

Location Taken: LA, US

Video Credits

Interviewer: Alex Demas, Public Affairs Specialist, USGS

Transcript

[background sounds only] 
Hi there. I'm Alex Demas with the USGS. I'm standing here with one of our scientists, James Fountain, also with the USGS. He's going to talk a little bit about the flooding that's hit Louisiana. We're standing here in Livingston Parish. James, can you tell us a little bit about the flooding that started last Thursday? 
Last Thursday, we were sitting around the USGS office, myself and a few bosses. We were discussing, "What are we going to do for Friday?" because there was obviously some rain coming. In some places, they were predicting as much as ten inches, which is a fairly high amount of rain. 
We expected some localized flooding and some small streams, so we put together two crews of USGS personnel to come in and make some flood measurements on Friday, because we normally have a lot of our technicians off on that day. We didn't expect a whole lot. 
Friday morning showed up. Myself and another tech, Glen Stevens and Zach Holcomb, we all made a run up north going towards an area called Montpelier to catch a few measurements. At this point, you really didn't have any idea of what was coming. We had some rain starting, and we were still going. 
We've dealt with this for our whole career. I've got around 14 years in at this point, working on 15. Being in surface water my whole career, I've spent most of my life chasing some floods and measurements and this is just what you do. We loaded up in a truck, and we made our way up towards Montpelier. We were driving through a section of Highway 16, just past the Montpelier gauge. 
We rode up through a little dip that had a couple of inches of water, but a few miles past that, on our way to a gauge in Liverpool, we came to an area you just couldn't pass anymore. There was an incredible amount of water that had already passed over Highway 16 on the bridge there before we got to it, and the state troopers had it blocked off. 
We discussed it, realized that that bridge was at real risk for scour, and we didn't want to go past there. Our job is to get out and measure the water. 
Obviously, there's nothing we want more than to do the best that we can to collect data to make sure that anything like this, when it happens, we can mitigate it in the future and give people the data they need to design projects in the future to mitigate things like this, but we had to turn around. 
I think when we turned around and started coming back is when we really got a feel for the fact that this wasn't going to be something we were used to. At that time, we were thinking maybe we should take a step back for a second. Just last March, we had flooding that was pretty historical. 
We broke some records in some places that were pretty extreme records to begin with. Take Robert, for example, where you just saw an incredible amount of water. Nobody out there had ever seen anything like it before. It really paled in comparison to what this was turning into. 
We come back to the day, and we turn around and we're making our way back. That area that had six inches or so of water before, we were coming through and there was a minivan. It had tried to plow through and it stalled out. Glen was in a truck in front of me with his USGS license and flags on it. I was in a expedition behind, myself and Zach. 
Glen pulls up next to him and said, "A man, a woman, and their son," and they just dropped the kid off at MSU to get started for his first semester of college. They're on their way up to Mississippi to meet another one, to move him into the dorms. They don't know where to go. They're from Illinois. 
Glen got them out of the truck, got them into his truck and we pulled down through the water. We helped get their luggage out and what not. They're losing everything in the water. As the water is coming up, they realize and said, "We just passed that area. It was six inches. Now we've got around two feet or so." It's enough. The minivan couldn't make it. 
We all got together and we helped get their luggage out. There's another fellow helped us pull the truck up, so it was on dry land with other vans, so that we, hopefully, felt a little bit better. We started talking with the family. They really wanted to stay and try to get their van running again and go home. 
We were explaining, "Look, this is something that is bad already. You can't go nowhere. You can't go east. The best we can really hope for is to go south and make our way back towards Baton Rouge, and your van's not going to come back through there." We talked for a little while. It explained the situation and finally wound up reorganizing our vehicles a little bit. 
They were able to get into one of the Expeditions, the whole family was. Zach was going to take them back to Baton Rouge to meet with their family. Glen and I were going to catch a discharge measurement to see how much water was flowing though Montpelier, because it was rising pretty quickly. 
We turn around and we start going back south on 16 towards Montpelier with the Expedition following us. We come to an area that's got some water on the road. It's been 45 minutes tops since we passed that area. It was bone dry. Just as dry as the deck we're standing on right now, when we passed a little while ago. 
You really had no expectations of the amount of water there, but this is the only way back out. We're not going to find another path as far as we know. We start forwarding through it and there's a Camry in front of us. There is a larger pickup truck, and in front of that, it was a Dodge 1500. 
They were making it and the Camry was doing pretty well. We got about halfway and the Camry was no longer touching the road, so it started floating across. Just to put it into perspective, we're not talking an hour. That means we have at least three feet of water at that point, because the Camry just was floating. 
Glen pushed the truck and parked. I'm calling Zach behind me and hollering at Zach while I was on speaker phone, "Look, don't bring that Expedition in here. Go back. Find another way. The worst case scenario, you go to the gas station and just stay there." 
Dwayne is trying to get the lady whose Camry is floating out of her car, because if it goes any further with the flow, now you're in the ditch. Then after that, it's just a river. I was holding onto the door of his truck. Glen was holding on to the car, we got her in our big pickup truck, and we started making it through the water. 
In this time frame, the water's now up to the floorboards of this pickup truck. We're in a SUV. We've got a lot of ground clearance, so I think we're probably pushing maybe three and a half feet of water. It could be a little bit more at that point. 
It was unprecedented. I've never seen water begin to rise like this before, and it just keeps going. We've dealt with this. I'm going to get repetitive, but this is my livelihood. Everybody in the USGS Surface Water Division, this is what we do. You don't see floods every year, but we've seen floods before. 
We go work on them and this was supposed to be originally a 10 inches rainfall. This isn't supposed to be happening. 
The Camry is floating aside. We get back in the truck, and when we were getting back in the truck, I see a Dodge 1500. He got a little too far off the asphalt and he dipped a tire. I mean, as quick as that tire fell off, that pickup truck was gone. You could have snapped a finger and there was only that much roof line left. 
It was incredible. I'm hollering at Glen, "Look, we got to go. We got to get out." As Zach's going back his way, and I'm trying to pop a text back to Todd at the USGS office saying, "Look, do what you can to help Zach. We got to get out of here." 
We're supposed to be measuring the river, but the river's now the highway, and so the discharge measurements just stopped happening and now we're rescuing people. I thought I'd be home before 2:00 o'clock that day. We keep on going towards the Dodge and the guy pops up out of it, him and his dog. We grab him, we put him in the truck, and we get back up. 
That was the discharge measurement that was supposed to happen that day. Understand that we put two crews together for something that really shouldn't have been that big of a deal, and then we hadn't made measurement, number one. We've got a total of five people in two different vehicles that were flooded out, and we nearly didn't make our truck out. 
Zach, they were able to talk him through a bunch of some side roads. He went through some shallow water, finally found his way back [indecipherable] . 
We're blessed that he was able to make his way home and was able to get the family back to the son [indecipherable] . I think that's when we started getting the feel that this was going to be impressive and incredibly destructive, but we still didn't understand. 
I don't think anybody in the state really did. Maybe there were a few people here or there, but this was incredible and you never could have fathomed how far it was going to go. 
It came to your place here, didn't it? 
It absolutely did. That leads us into Saturday morning. We're still putting together crews. We're still working normally. We came in to work Saturday, so we had either two or three crews from USGS personnel to go make discharge measurements because, at this point, the rain that had fallen north of us had started to move down to East Baton Rouge Parish. 
There's a river, the Amite River, which is a primary feeder for what's happened in Southern Louisiana here, that drains a lot of other basins. Those basins were what were catching that rainfall. 
Well, Amite River and Denham Springs is where we went to measure. I went out there with [indecipherable] and another guy, Glen Stevens, actually again, in his surface water truck. He comes out and we get to the bridge. Now, this is a big high rise bridge and we're on a major highway, 190. 
Never has anybody that I know ever seen water across 190 there, at any point. When we say historical, understand that we are just blowing away history at this point, but there's already water there. We parked our truck, and Glen and I talked. He forded through to go check the site. 
While we're parked there, the water has already crept up to the tires of my truck, so I eased my truck up a little bit more, and the water creeps up again. We'd been watching the forecast, and had seen the water actually rise this quickly. I think reality began to sink in. 
To step aside here, my house is built almost four feet higher than the highest flood that's ever occurred in this area. I built it that high because I thought we'd be safe. When I was speaking with my wife, I was never concerned with our home, but I began to worry that, with seeing how the water was coming up, we wouldn't be able to get back to each other. 
I called her and told her, "Look, we were already planning on leaving on Sunday. See if you can get a hotel room. Go ahead, pack some clothes. Go to the hotel. We'll be home in about three days or so, but I think the roads are going to block off by tonight, and we're not going to get in and out." I may have underestimated things a little bit. 
It did turn out that it was that bad, but we chased the water at Denham. To really shorten that sight of things, I couldn't figure a good way to measure. We did our best to determine a way to make discharge measurements. Normally, we just work from the bridge. 
We chased after boats, and we thought maybe we can make a boat measurement. Then we can make a bridge measurement, and then they can make a little boat measurement on the other side, and so the police agreed to help us out. They took us in a high water vehicle to the top of the bridge. 
When we reached the top of the bridge, everything that I thought I knew about what was going to happen. I think everybody I spoke to suddenly realized that we had problems, because now we're Saturday morning, the water starts at the foot of the bridge, and it runs all the way into downtown Denham Springs. You just don't stop seeing water. 
We hit that spot again. Just start measurements can't happen. You can't measure that quantity of water. We don't have the equipment to do it, so that put this stop on work for that day. We did search and rescue some. We helped police officers pull people out of houses. 
Then I went home to the hotel that night, and I met with my family. We really are so blessed that we got out, because by that night the roads were blocked. Sunday, we still don't know. In my heart of hearts, I'm still thinking a foot underneath our house. We're good to go. We're going to go home, but I go to work Sunday. 
At that point, we began chasing some measurements, making our measurements off of I-12. People started thinking outside of the box. We did some really complicated measurements where we ran head differences on any of the culverts that run underneath the interstate. We made discharge measurements across major highways that went underneath the interstate. 
We started at an exit called Millerville in Baton Rouge, and we ran all the way to Walker. That's how we were able to measure the river. Unless you can see it on a map, it's hard to get that into your brain, but understand that the Amite River took over one and a half parishes. 
You didn't have a river any more. It's mind boggling that you really just had a massive expanse of flowing lake across a parish. 
That afternoon is when we saw pictures of the water under our house. I have a neighbor that lives just up the way. They stayed, and they were telling us, "There's water under your house," and so they sent a picture to us. Being the guy that I am, I've been watching the forecast. We still had close to three feet to go in Port Vincent, which is right down the street. 
I expected inches. Instead, when I saw the picture, it was inches from my sub-floor. Sunday night, we started paperwork. 
At that point, there was no way we were going to escape the water. You can still see on the house. This isn't as high as it got. That was your settle point. I think we broke that by about six inches from what I see on the inside of the walls, but it came in, and it stayed here for about three days. 
While the house was under water, there wasn't much else we could do. Stayed at work, and kept chasing what we could. We lost the gauge in Port Vincent, so myself and Josh took the USGS boats and trucks back down highway 42. We lost a boat off of a highway I come to and fro from work everyday. 
I drove through somebody's front yard in a boat to go to Bayou Manchac. We had to run Manchac all the way back down the Amite River to a bridge that normally has around 20 feet of clearance underneath it, and the water was in the bottom girders. There was no more clearance left. 
We were able to get the gauge back up and running, so that played back into NOAA's modeling. It was just after the peak, so we were able to keep moving forward with it. This whole time, while we were waiting to get home, the Louisiana office was doing everything they could to chase measurements, get gauges up and running. 
I don't think I could say enough, either. The USGS stepped out of their comfort zone. 
We had people from Ruston that were in. We had people from Mississippi. There were places that Baton Rouge USGS office physically could not access because all of the roadways were blocked off, and so Mississippi came from north to Louisiana back down to get those gauges running for us again. There was just a massive effort to try to keep things moving forward. 
Sounds good. Can you show a little bit what happened around here on your property? 
It's an open floor plan now. We [laughs] might keep it this way. It's pretty airy. 
We looked a little bit different about a week ago. We had hardwood floors through the whole place. We really decked the house out because of the [indecipherable] was in here. I had high hopes of saving it, but unfortunately, it just started crumbling. The water line inside would have settled in right about here. 
After three days, we crawled up, and it had made it into the sheet rock to around this corner. We initially cut, and we were really hoping to be able to keep the top 48 inches. It simplifies things. This isn't the most uncommon theme for parts of Louisiana. I never thought this house would get it. We're working to take the rest of it out now. 
Wendy Hale, who is watching us right now, wants to know, "More rain is coming. Are you worried about this happening again?" 
Wendy, I'll tell you that I've made a couple of jokes. If it is going to come, and we're going to have to flood again, at least the walls are already out. No, I don't know. That's a good question. One thing we do have a problem with is we've had a very wet summer. We're super saturated. There's not a lot of place for water to go other than the waterways. 
I'm anxious about a storm coming at us. I think it's one of those things where you just have to watch, wait, and pray. 
Speaking of storms, obviously the question a lot of people have is, is there any parallels between this flood and Katrina? 
That's a good point. That's something myself and Todd Baumann spoke about in his office, that it is eerily similar how this storm and Katrina align as far as perception and result. That Thursday night, we sat around and we talked about a moderate storm that shouldn't have been a problem. We all went home. I had plans to go do some work with some other USGS personnel that following week. 
I said, "Should I cancel hotel reservations?" We made the decision that there was really no need to cancel that, that this wasn't going to be of anything important. That's exactly how Katrina was. Everybody went home comfortable. 48 hours later, you realize that this was a completely underestimated event. 
When we say that this is unprecedented, and when you hear the news say this is historical, I think that if you didn't see it, you can't possibly understand how enormous this event was. Hundreds of thousands of people are [indecipherable] . 
Businesses have been destroyed. This was supposed to be a half a day event for water resources. There are still people working seven days a week just to try to continue to collect data, not to mention all the people that [indecipherable] . 
It's really hard to comprehend the scale of all of this. 
It is. I think we talked a little bit earlier that even when you pull up to my house and you see my yard, there's grass and there's the landscaping was left, and there's my truck parked here, even now trying to visualize the fact that a week and a half ago your knees were in the water. 
You couldn't see any of these, but the highest storm ever that we have on history up until this point, there would have been no water on this grass. 
Thank you, James. Thank you very much. We really appreciate you talking to us. 
I appreciate the talk. 
[silence]