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The secretary of Homeland Security was in Louisiana today to see the destruction caused by historic flooding. He offered federal support for victims. More than a dozen people have died, and about 40,000 homes have been damaged. Now the state must figure out how to help survivors get back on their feet. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Outside Ponchatoula, Wayne Norwood is trying to salvage what he can from the Louisiana Treasures Museum, a roadside collection of antiques.
WAYNE NORWOOD: Talk about a mess, unreal.
ELLIOTT: Muddy debris litters the floor and despite fans airing things out, there's a foul smell.
NORWOOD: It's just heartbreaking.
ELLIOTT: The walls are lined with antique glass, historic photographs and iron farm implements. Display cases floated and many artifacts are ruined.
NORWOOD: Fifty years of hunting stuff. You lose it in one day.
ELLIOTT: Soaked nutria hides and a Sears Roebuck catalog from 1927 are spread on a cypress bench to dry. Norwood says the water came fast and hard.
NORWOOD: The wall was coming this way. And we opened the door to come in right here. It took two of us to push the door closed. That's how strong the water was.
ELLIOTT: Wayne and his wife Debbie Norwood are retired police officers. The flood destroyed their museum and four rental homes on the property. They used a pirogue, a Cajun canoe to get around. Now they've been ripping out sheet rock and using bleach to battle the muck but aren't sure what's next.
NORWOOD: We have fire insurance, but we don't have flood insurance because we're not in the flood zone. And that's what happened to thousands of people.
ELLIOTT: People here are trying to understand how the flood caught them off guard and in places that historically have never had water. Debbie Norwood says the ground was already saturated from typical summer rainfall. And then the deluge came, more than two feet in a 48-hour period.
DEBBIE NORWOOD: It rained for hours, you know, north of us. And whenever it did and the rivers got full, the water didn't have anywhere to go. So we ended up getting the back water from it 'cause we'd never gotten water before.
ELLIOTT: The water's going to take its route, she says, even if that means through homes and businesses. It's still rising as it drains south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Governor John Bel Edwards says rescue efforts continue in four parishes.
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JOHN BEL EDWARDS: As I've been saying for six days now, this is an ongoing event. We still have floodwaters and, in fact, in some cases, record flood waters as they move south.
ELLIOTT: The sheer scope of the disaster is daunting. More than 86,000 people have registered for FEMA assistance. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson says the federal government will be here to help in the recovery. But he's having to field questions about why President Obama hasn't spoken about the disaster or planned a visit.
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JEH JOHNSON: As I said, the president can't be everywhere. I know he has a very busy schedule this fall and in the coming days. And he is closely monitoring the situation.
ELLIOTT: The immediate challenge is housing. Joan Phipps is among the homeless. Her rental house near Ponchatoula was underwater. Her furniture and all her belongings are in a soaked pile on the driveway.
JOAN PHIPPS: We couldn't save anything.
ELLIOTT: From a paper plate, she eats barbecue and jambalaya distributed by a local church. Phipps says she's taking it one day at a time.
PHIPPS: We're Louisiana. We'll rebuild. We'll get it back together.
ELLIOTT: But even for a state accustomed to natural disasters, this flood is like nothing they've ever seen before. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.