DENHAM SPRINGS -- Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard’s voice cracked as he recounted his personal experience of the Great Flood of 2016.
Until then, Ard had never openly discussed the matter.
But with church goers and other first responders gathered for a special service at Lockhart Road Baptist Church this weekend, he decided to share his story from those first few days of the natural disaster, which seemed to have no end at the time.
“Friday to Tuesday seemed like one day,” said Ard, recalling Aug. 12-16 of last year.
Murmurs of agreement echoed through the sanctuary as this remark — especially from the other first responders, who were sitting in the church nearly 11 months after their own harrowing experiences from the historic flood.
But like Ard, the first responders never questioned their duties, even as flood waters ravaged through Livingston Parish and washed away some of their own homes.
As firefighters, police officers, paramedics and other public servants, their job — first and foremost — was to protect others, even if it meant not protecting themselves.
This weekend, they were honored for their dedication.
Lockhart Road Baptist Church in Denham Springs recognized the heroes from the Great Flood of 2016 with a special appreciation service for first responders on Sunday, July 9.
There were several representatives from local law enforcement and other public service agencies on hand, as well as a large group of regular citizens who came to thank them for their service — especially at the end of last summer.
Rev. Lee Ostten of Lockhart Baptist spoke at several points during the service, constantly getting choked up as he expressed gratitude toward the firefighters, police officers and paramedics that sat in his church.
A native of Columbia, Louisiana, Ostten has lived all over the state, but during Sunday’s service, he said he’s “never been more appreciative of first responders” than for ones who helped Livingston Parish get through the unforeseen tragedy.
“It’s like a drowning man finding his heroes and just giving them a hug,” Ostten said. “I’ve always been taught to appreciate the people that serve you, and how can you not be grateful to the people who protect you from evil folks or heal you when you’re sick or save you from dangers like a flood?”
On Sunday, Ostten and his congregation got to thank them all.
Representatives of the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, Acadian Ambulance, Denham Springs Fire Department, the Walker Police Department and Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 4 were present for the service, which started at 10:30 a.m. and included a lunch at the end.
Once Ostten said the final prayer, everyone in the sanctuary exited to the back cafeteria, which had a huge table loaded with hot barbeque ribs, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, baked beans, cool watermelon, dessert and more.
Twenty-two-year-old Austin Ebarb, one of the District 4 firefighters on hand, sat down to eat his plate lunch shortly after the service ended.
In between bites, he and fellow firefighter Tyler Fleming talked of their own flood experiences, which Ebarb described as “overwhelming.”
Living in Colyell at the time, Ebarb remembers waking up and “walking outside to water.”
Realizing this was no ordinary flood, he then called his fire chief to see where he was needed most, and before long he was on a big army truck heading toward some of the hardest-hit areas of the parish.
“We went three days without sleep,” said Ebarb, who became a part-time firefighter in Walker last August, the month the flood struck. “It seemed like one long day. It was challenging both physically and mentally.”
Over time, it’s also become rewarding for Ebarb, who smiled proudly as Ostten handed him and Fleming a plaque honoring District 4 near the end of the church service.
“This means the world to me, because not all the time are you recognized,” Ebarb said. “You see a lot of terrible things riding on these fire trucks or police cars or ambulances. You see a lot of people on the worst days of their lives, and it’s your job to be there to help.
“To be recognized for it means everything.”
Sheriff Ard expressed that same sentiment as he shared his personal experience from the Great Flood during a half-hour sermon Sunday.
Before the flood, Ard said he and his office were spending much of their time assisting Baton Rouge law enforcement in the protests that followed the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and three Baton Rouge police officers last summer.
The unrest quieted down a bit as the calendar flipped to August, and it appeared to Ard that he and his office would soon get a much-needed break from the extreme situation.
“Then the flood came in,” he said.
Ard remembers water coming through the doors of his Ford F-250 as he drove from place to place to give orders, but he felt nothing he did could overtake the “mad chaos” he saw wherever he went.
For the first time in his life, Ard started to feel like he was fighting a losing battle — especially after a phone call around 1 a.m. Saturday informed him that the 911 center was taking in water.
“We were 400 calls behind for several days,” Ard said. “We just couldn’t catch up. It seemed like we were out of the ball game.”
Ard said he pulled up to the flooded 911 center shortly after getting the call. Deputies were busy scattering sandbags around the building while firefighters desperately tried to pump water out with two just pump trucks.
But despite the hopeless-looking scene outside, Ard saw a much more uplifting one as he entered the center.
Though water kept steadily coming into the building, he watched as the on-duty officers walked bare footed with their pants rolled up, even though electrical sockets were scattered all over the room.
Heedless of Ard or even of the danger they were all in, the officers were busy answering and dispatching emergency calls. Ard said he “basically had to drag” one dispatcher out because she refused to quit taking phone calls.
“And I will bet my life that no one making those calls, or even the guys that were being dispatched, knew what those dispatchers were dealing with,” Ard said. “You know why? Because they were focused.
“They didn’t care about their own well-being. They were so focused, and it was very humbling for me to see that.”
Even though flood issues kept mounting for Ard during the initial stages, he said he continued to find little moments such as this that touched and inspired him to continue doing his job, which grew worse long before it ever got better.
But with the help of countless other first responders, it eventually did get better.
“This wasn’t the effort of one man,” Ard said. “This was the efforts of everybody, all of us working together.”