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Florida deputy uses resident's boat to save about 120 people trapped in Sally floodwaters

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/18/2020 Colin Warren-Hicks, Pensacola News Journal
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PENSACOLA, Fla. – At the height of the flooding from Sally Wednesday, an Escambia County Sheriff’s Office deputy took a 21-foot boat off a trailer that belonged to a resident of the Bristol Park neighborhood in Cantonment, Florida, cranked the motor and ferried about 120 people safely to dry land.

a man standing in front of a car: Escambia County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jeremy Small © Colin Warren-Hicks Escambia County Sheriff's Office Capt. Jeremy Small

Capt. Jeremy Small drove the vessel over asphalt, dodging staples of domesticity like mailboxes and minivans, through suburban streets.

“I asked the guy whose boat it was if he wanted to do the driving,” recalled Capt. Jeremy Small. “He said, ‘No, sir.’ So, I cranked the engine and backed her off the trailer.”

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan told the News Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, that Small’s heroism was symbolic of all the men and woman of the ECSO.

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“The actions of Capt. Jeremy Small in the rescue of Escambia County citizens trapped in the floodwaters are just indicative of all the men and woman of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office who are prepared to give their lives if necessary to save others, whether responding to a terrorist attack or a flood-ravaged county,” Morgan said. “Every day they are prepared to serve.”

A call for help

Around 6 a.m. Wednesday, Small was in the ECSO’s vehicle garage in Pensacola when a call came in from the county’s emergency operations center requesting the help of a high-water rescue vehicle, or HRV, in Cantonment.

The dispatcher told Small at least one family had already fled to the elevated safety of their home’s attic in Bristol Park. It wasn’t expected that a civilian or even standard-police SUV could ford the floods — and the water was rising.

No other sworn deputies were around. The only other person in the ECSO garage at the time who could possibly help him on the long journey over the water-locked country roads to Cantonment was a mechanic, Chris Leverett.

“It was just what I felt was right,” Leverett said, about his decision to aid the deputy. “Trying to get people to safety was the right thing to do.

“Put yourself in their shoes. I just didn’t think twice,” he continued. “I just did it.”

The ECSO’s HRV is a hulking vehicle with enormous tires. There is a large cab with an extended bed in the back that’s ceilinged by canvas. A tan paint-job makes it resemble an Army transport.

Leverett drove. Small rode in the passenger seat as they set out for the floodwaters in Cantonment shortly after 6 a.m. as Hurricane Sally squalled outside, all around them.

On Pine Forrest Road near the Silver Lake mobile home park, the road was flooded, and the water ripped around a stuck van.


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“There was a guy in the van,” Small said. “So, we checked on him, and he was like ‘Nah. I’m good. I don’t want to leave my vehicle.’ It wasn’t real-swift water. We were like ‘All right, we got an emergency,’ and we head on.”

The men turned on Highway 97, which took them all the way to the Bristol Park subdivision, and they found the situation much worse than merely a single family trapped in an attic.

“There was water already up to all the doors of the homes that were there,” Small said. “About two streets into the neighborhood and the water, it was getting close to touching the tops of brick mailboxes.”

People started pouring out of their homes, trying to make it to the HRV.

“We’re filling the truck up as we went along the street,” Small said. “We hit the second cul-de-sac that was flooded. Got some more people there. There was a car, a Camaro, that was flooded with people in it. We loaded them up.”

Going street to street, Small and Leverett would make short stops. Parking the HRV in waist-deep water, they exited the vehicle and used a runaway kayak they found in a yard as a makeshift stretcher to float those who were not strong enough to stand in the strong current over to their big truck.

Rising waters and a leap of faith

On one street, Leverett spotted a family waiting for rescue in its boat parked in their driveway. The HRV drove their way. The family got in, but after driving about 20 more feet, Leverett told Small they had a problem.

The HRV was stuck. The water had risen high enough that even the hulking HRV could no longer move — full of refugees and now they had no way to escape the neighborhood.

“It was a pretty bad situation,” Small remembered. “Then, a guy in the back said, ‘You can use my boat.’"

The water had risen. It was chest deep with a strong current, and Small did not want to risk being swept under.

The ECSO captain used the roofs of cars parked along the street to leapfrog back to the boat until he reached the last vehicle between himself and the vessel. The boat was too far away to make a clean jump. He’d have to swim several feet.

“Like I said, there was strong current. I was a little concerned about if I could make it or whether it would suck me under. I probably spent about a minute debating what I was going to do,” Small said. “I kind of took a leap of faith and dove over there and made it right to the boat.”

Small has some experience with boating. But he said he's not an expert, and driving the relatively large vessel in a strong current through tight spaces proved challenging.

“I probably dinged a couple of mailboxes and things,” he said.

Regardless, Small operated the boat back to the stuck HRV, loaded up with refugees and ferried them to the mouth of the Bristol Park neighborhood where the land rose, and the waters receded.

Then, he went back in.

“Chris and I made about 10 to 12 trips with an average of 10 people on each ride,” Small said of his and Leverett’s adventure.

“When we took them out of there — I mean, I was driving on asphalt — the road sloped up,” he said, “and I definitely was banging the bottom of the boat on the road near the opening of the neighborhood where the people were getting off.

“That man probably is insured,” Small continued. “I hope he has insurance, but I have no doubt that he’ll get it paid for somehow, and I’m glad he let us use the boat. Otherwise, I don’t know how those people would have been saved.”

Small returned to Bristol Park after the flood had passed and saw the boat back in place, sitting perfectly on top of its trailer.

“I don’t know how he managed it,” Small added.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Florida deputy uses resident's boat to save about 120 people trapped in Sally floodwaters

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