Through the roof: A personal account

Published 7:59 pm Saturday, September 3, 2016

Donna Hopkins remembers what her dad used to say when he was building their family home on River Road, back when she was a teenager.

“He always said the town of Denham Springs would have to flood before his house would,” she recalls with a shake of her head. “Well, he was right.”

Denham Springs did in fact flood Aug. 12, and all the houses on River Road along with it. Almost three weeks later, Hopkins finds herself with little left of the house her dad built and she has owned for 20 years. There’s a concrete foundation, topped by a skeleton of 2x4s where walls once stood. Sheetrock, torn out by volunteer groups, lays piled at the curb. Destroyed furniture covers the lawn. But for Hopkins, a grandmother of 14, the most telling evidence of the flood her dad predicted would “never happen” is up high near a peak of the roof. That’s where you’ll find a few of the shingles missing, thanks to her brother-in-law’s chain saw. Oddly enough, the hole could almost pass for an outline of the state of Louisiana.

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That’s the spot where she was rescued.

A school band director and private piano instructor, Hopkins had stayed up late that Friday night it rained so hard. Her daughter and family, missionaries to Nigeria, were flying in Thursday. She wanted to get ahead in some online coursework, so much so that she fell asleep on the couch around 2 a.m.

Two hours later her phone rang.

“Are you OK?” asked her pastor’s wife. Groggy, Hopkins slid her feet off the couch. They hit water. Still trying to get her bearings, she went to the front door to see what was going on. Cracking it just a bit, water gushed in by the gallons. She slammed it shut.

“I knew I had to think smart,” Hopkins remembers. “Should I try to swim to safety? Climb out through roof?”  She called her son, who called 911. She changed her clothes and put on tennis shoes. After trying to reach her sister, she dropped her phone in the water.

“Sondra said she knew in her heart that something was wrong when she couldn’t get through to me,” Hopkins says. “She called my son, her neighbors, put it on Facebook. She was the reason someone eventually came to save me.”

The “someone” was Sondra’s husband and two others who Hopkins now refers to as the Cajun Navy. The men were fishermen and builders by trade, so they had a boat and the tools needed to conduct a search and rescue effort.

Meanwhile, Hopkins had regained partial use of her phone. “My son called me and knew water was rising quickly,” she recalls. “He told me to get in the attic, climb the rafters, and beat out a vent we just put in a few weeks ago.”

She grabbed her dog, stopping to switch her front porch light on and off a few times. “I live off the road so I was afraid rescue crews wouldn’t know I was there,” she explains. “At one point I opened a window to scream for help. The scary thing was hearing everyone else screaming for help, too. I finally decided I had to stay in my attic or I’d drown.”

Hopkins then began an exhausting battle with the roof vent. Huge bruises testify to the struggle.

She beat it until it loosened, but it wouldn’t come off. During breaks, she sang “Jesus Loves Me.”

“I’ve taught music for years, and out of the thousands of songs I know, it was the one song I wanted to sing,” she says, sounding somewhat surprised. “I’ve memorized a lot of Scripture, too, but the only one I had the longing to repeat was Psalm 23. God makes Himself very real to you in situations like that.” After a rest, Hopkins would climb the rafters and begin beating the vent again.

Eventually Hopkins’ brother-in-law and crew spotted her house. “When they could see the water hadn’t reached attic level yet, they circled back to help a man clinging to a utility pole,” she says. “His wife and children were about to drown. They had to pry his fingers from the pole.” After leaving them in a safe spot, they returned to get Hopkins, whom they could hear calling for help.

“In thirty seconds I was out,” she says. That was around 7:30 a.m., but the danger wasn’t over. The water was so high Hopkins just stepped into the boat. She soon realized no one could survive swimming in the current.

And that’s what’s most amazing, she says – no deaths on her street. “So many needed to be rescued. One had a four-month-old baby. They had to get out so fast she didn’t have time to get a blanket,” Hopkins says. “I watched as the elderly couple across the street got into the boat. The lady, who’s over 80, was in great spirits, quoting scripture.”

Hopkins, like many others in Louisiana, lost her car, her clothes, her photo albums and almost every other material possession she had.

“I cried when I first walked in my house,” she admits. “I couldn’t eat for a couple of days, but there’s really no time to feel sorry for yourself. You have to get busy at rebuilding. I’m thankful to be alive.”

Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at