Skip to main content

For Louisiana town, a collective gasp as it braces for floodwaters

By Ed Lavandera, CNN
Click to play
Town learns 15-foot flood may be coming
  • A plan to divert floodwaters from the Mississippi River means flooding homes in Butte La Rose
  • Army Corps of Engineers expects floodwaters of 15 feet if and when spillway is opened
  • Resident are racing against the clock to salvage what they can before floodwaters hit

Watch "The CMT Disaster Relief Concert," co-hosted by HLN's Robin Meade, to help raise money for victims recently devastated by storms, tornadoes and flooding in the Southeast. "Music Builds" airs Sunday night at 9 ET on HLN.

Butte La Rose, Louisiana (CNN) -- On a two-lane road that cuts through a dense forest of Louisiana cypress trees, intermingled with narrow, dark creeks, sits a small community trapped in the path of a looming disaster.

Hundreds of people packed into the Butte La Rose firehouse to learn about the flood projections from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Col. Ed Fleming delivered the dire news.

"Listen to me, listen to me, OK," he said. "I'm telling you the depth of water from right here will be 15 feet."

The number stunned the crowd.

Pierre Watermeyer turned to friends and said, "It's over with, it's over with."

Open story: iReporters/CNN journalists cover the flood

Louisiana mayor preps for rising waters
Record flooding moves south

The 15-foot flood prediction in Butte La Rose is based on the Corps inundation map for when the Morganza Spillway is opened.

On Friday evening, the Corps said it would open the spillway once river flows reach 1.5 million cubic feet per second. That could happen as early as Saturday, Gov. Bobby Jindal said.

Residents flee as officials await word on spillway

Opening the spillway will redirect floodwaters from the Mississippi River through the Atchafalaya River Basin, which runs between Baton Rouge and Lafayette south toward Morgan City.

There are more than 800 homes in the Butte La Rose area of St. Martins Parish, which sits right in the flood path. It's home to an eclectic collection of Cajuns who've come to this hideaway for generations to drift through the hidden waters catching crawfish. They call their homes "camps."

Each has funny names like Timbuktu, Abracadabra and Bahama Mama's.

Watermeyer finished designing and painting his red and yellow camp sign a few weeks ago, calling his home "Last Dance."

"I always wanted to name the camp Last Dance," he said as he packed his belongings.

But now, he is racing against the clock to salvage what he can before the floodwaters start to swell and creep out of the tree lines.

He's removed cabinets, sinks, the refrigerator and furniture, and he even plans to disconnect his air-conditioning unit and take that, too.

Butte La Rose will soon be a ghost town. Residents are packing up and heading out.

"It's just a somber mood. Everybody's just doing what they got to do," Watermeyer said. "At least we have time to get out."

After the town meeting in the town firehouse, Kelli Trimm stood next to her husband, sobbing.

"It's worse than we thought," Trimm said. "It's going to take everything, everything we've got. It's scary. It's going to take out our whole community."

Trimm and her husband moved to Butte La Rose after her husband lost a leg while rescuing people after Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana.

It's worse than we thought. It's going to take everything, everything we've got. It's scary. It's going to take out our whole community.
--Kelli Trimm, resident

She said it's taken them five years to pay for their modest home. Inside the firehouse, Fleming could sense the tension and fear.

Stunned residents just stared at him, as if they were waiting for someone to tell them they'd just woken up from a horrifying nightmare.

In a thick Massachusetts accent, Fleming told the audience about moving 14 times in his 22-year military career.

The crowd got quiet as the colonel leaned over the podium and his voice started to quiver.

"It's an interesting thing," Fleming said. "When that moving truck drives away, and you're standing in your driveway with your family and a couple of suitcases and a box. That's when you find out what's important to you."

The poignant moment came with one last ominous warning.

It will take almost two days for the waters to start rushing into Butte La Rose after the floodgates of the Morganza Spillway are opened. After that, officials say the floodwaters could sit here until mid-June.

"When they tell you it's time to evacuate, you need to heed their warning because it's serious," Fleming told the crowd.

With that, the residents of Butte La Rose returned to their camps and kept loading trailers with boxes full of personal treasures.

Watermeyer says he plans to stick around Butte La Rose until the water starts to touch his newly painted "Last Dance" camp sign.

He wants to take that picture, then pack up the sign and head for higher ground.

But Watermeyer makes it clear that he will be back, even if it takes weeks.

"It's not going to be the last dance, it's not going to be. We'll dance again around here," he says.