Lessons from a flood: Bogalusa native helps disaster victims with National Guard unit

Published 7:21 am Friday, September 2, 2016

Bogalusa native Steven Simmons has seen a lot in the armed service.

Simmons has been in the Louisiana National Guard since December 2008. In that time, he’s been to Kuwait and Afghanistan, among other places. Even so, he said he’s never quite seen anything like the flooding that blanketed parts of the state in August.

Simmons is a sergeant with the 205th battalion out of Covington and though he didn’t know it when he woke up at 6 a.m. Friday, Aug. 12, he wouldn’t get to sleep again until Sunday.

Simmons spent the next few days driving an LMTV, a high-water rescue vehicle, with specialist Nick Newell while they rescued hundreds of people and dozens of pets.

Simmons said he’d driven an LMTV before, but only for training purposes — never in actual flood conditions. Simmons said the water was four or five feet high, and by nightfall, the truck was piloted by the light from flashlights he and Newell held out their windows. The two went from town to town, from Albany to Independence to Walker and other areas in Tangipahoa Parish, ferrying anyone who needed help to the closest shelter.

“Me and Nick were having to kick in doors because they couldn’t open the door,” he said. “They would have drowned if they’d stayed.”

Simmons said people should have evacuated, but nobody — not even the rescuers — knew how bad it would be.

“We had to relocate a shelter because the shelter was about to flood,” he said. “There were 65 people there. … Nobody thought the water was going to rise so quick. You could see it. It was amazing. It was filling up like a bathtub.”

He said even a fire station in Albany flooded.

Simmons had never worked a natural disaster before, but he said he felt prepared.

In May, Simmons’ father, Edwin Simmons, died, and Simmons said he could feel the presence of his father during the rescue operation.

“I felt like he was with me and I made him proud,” Simmons said.

Simmons said his father worked for the city, and he hopes to carry on his father’s spirit of community service.

“I just know my dad would be really proud of me. He was a city worker and me and my dad have always been about public work and giving back,” Simmons said. “He loved the city of Bogalusa.”

Simmons said the flooding was surreal. As the waters rose, Simmons watched survivors arm themselves with guns and guard their property. Still, law and order prevailed and Simmons said some of that was due to a quick, organized response from emergency personnel.

“It was organized well all the way to the top,” he said. “… The Louisiana State Troopers and the cops and firefighters, we couldn’t have done it without them. … Everybody worked together so well. Even the volunteer help from the local citizens, there’s no way we could have gotten everyone out if it wasn’t for those guys.”

Simmons pointed out that only weeks earlier, Baton Rouge had been the scene of protests following a police shooting of a civilian. But after the storm, everyone seemed to want to work together.

In the end, Simmons and Newell rescued 312 people and 27 pets. Simmons said he learned some things about himself, as well.

“I learned how good of a leader I could be, because I had this younger troop with me. I learned love, courage and just really determination,” he said.

Simmons said he is thankful his recruiter, Sergeant Danyon Thomas, convinced him to sign up with the National Guard.

“He guided me my whole military career,” Simmons said. “I’ve listened to everything he’s told me so far. I would never be the man I am if I hadn’t met him. He changed my whole life.”

Simmons said he would like to continue to lead, and he’s already got big goals planned after his National Guard retirement in 2028.

“I’d like to run for mayor some day and change Bogalusa and make it better for everyone,” he said.