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How a rural Florida deputy saved a fellow cop from the rising waters of Hurricane Ian

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 11/29/2022 Jessica De Leon, Miami Herald
Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days.

Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is often the first call Myakka City residents make when they need help — and not even the fierce winds or rain from a Category 4 hurricane stop him from doing what he can to help.

Hendrickson joined the sheriff’s office 30 years ago as a reserve deputy. He was hired full-time two years later. Today, he leads the COPS Rural Unit and is a member of the Mounted Patrol Unit.

Flooding on Wauchula Road after Hurricane Ian passed. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Flooding on Wauchula Road after Hurricane Ian passed.

After three decades of service, Hendrickson has become a part of the fabric of the community. When he is not working, he might be out riding his own horse or occasionally even doing daywork at a local farm. But he doesn’t hesitate to answer the phone for a neighbor in need.

S.R. 70 surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Ian passed. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS S.R. 70 surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Ian passed.

Two months ago, as Hurricane Ian was pulling away from the area, Hendrickson got a call that a fellow deputy needed to be rescued.

The undercover detective — who the Bradenton Herald has not named to protect her identity — watched as her home in Arcadia became surrounded by water and the leaks from the roof became too many to keep up with.

She called the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office but was told they would not come out unless her family was in imminent danger.

“My son’s 5 years old,” she thought. “I’m physically fit. I can handle myself but my son, that’s a different mindset.”

So she let her supervisor know what was going on. Next thing she knew, Sgt. Rob Hendrickson was on his way.

Known by those who work or live in and around Myakka City as just Rob, he was hunkered down at Myakka City Elementary with the rest of Rural Unit, which he oversees, when he got a call from a patrol supervisor and friend of his.

That supervisor and others had attempted to get out east on State Road 64, but the road was under water at head of the Myakka River.

“Look, we’re in much bigger trucks than you. I’m not sure we can make it … If we can’t, I know you can’t,” Hendrickson told him. “We’ll attempt it. I’m not sure if we can get to her because I don’t know what the conditions were in Arcadia.”

Winds were still blowing about 100 miles per hour, he estimates.

S.R. 70 surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Ian passed. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS S.R. 70 surrounded by flood waters after Hurricane Ian passed.

When he got off the phone, his deputies immediately asked if Hendrickson wanted them to go, but he didn’t want to make anyone else go and said he would go himself. But Deputy Amy Dunkum announced she was coming with him, and Hendrickson didn’t argue.

“So she followed me and I told Amy, ‘Look, stay about 100 feet behind me.’ I said, ‘If you see my truck disappear, just stop.’ Because I didn’t know if the road was washed out. I had no idea. I’m like, if I lose a truck, at least if I get out and get back to her truck, we can get back. But if we lost both trucks, we were in trouble.”

Manatee County Sheriff’s deputy Justin Yero tells stories about working in the Myakka area during and after Hurricane Ian. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Manatee County Sheriff’s deputy Justin Yero tells stories about working in the Myakka area during and after Hurricane Ian.

‘Like a war zone’

But what is generally a 30 minute drive at most on any given day, turned into a 3 1/2 half hour mission.

“There was water in places I’ve never seen,” he said. “I’ve never seen so much water. So it’s still dark. The winds are still whipping. There’s trees and debris everywhere. We’re trying to dodge, and of course you can’t see what’s under the water … Every time we came up to high ground, there was cows in the road, so we’re dodging cows.”

Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days.

When they arrived in Arcadia, it was unrecognizable. The Peace River Campground was underwater. Some roads were washed out. As he was getting directions on the phone to the detective’s home, he came upon an Arcadia police officer who told him how to get through.

Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days.

Hendrickson waited on the high road, as the detective waded through waist-deep water to his truck, carrying her bags overhead. Her husband, who chose to stay behind with their dogs, carried their son to the truck.

Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days. © Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS Manatee County Sheriff’s Sgt. Rob Hendrickson is familiar face in Myakka, helping with animals and emergencies that arise. During Hurricane Ian, Hendrickson and his team stayed busy, answering 90 calls for service over three days.

“Obviously she was thankful,” Hendrickson said. “I said, ‘Don’t thank me yet. We didn’t get back yet. What we have to go through is pretty ugly.’ And obviously, it was even worse on the way back … It was more flooding, more cows, more trees.

The detective had put a life vest on her son before wading out to the road, and kept it on — fearful of what would happen if the truck flipped over and they went into the water.

“It was a mess. This place was like a war zone. It was terrible,” she said.

‘A community servant at heart’

Elementary schools in Manatee County don’t have school resource officers (SRO), but at Myakka City Elementary, Hendrickson acts like their unofficial SRO, principal Carol Ricks said.

“We don’t have an SRO, but we do. Because if we ever need anything, he’s there,” Ricks said. “I tell people all the time that we’re the safest school in the district, because (the Rural Unit deputies) are always within a mile unless they’re on a call. So if we ever have an emergency or anything, he’s here.”

Ricks first met Hendrickson when she became principal of Myakka Elementary four years ago. Hendrickson, as did many, stopped by to introduce himself and let her know he was there if she ever needed anything.

But unlike others, Hendrickson lived up to his words.

As Hurricane Ian’s rains and winds were starting to pickup, Hendrickson was still sitting inside his truck out in the parking lot, finishing paperwork when the school’s power went out. The generator kicked on, but moments later shut off.

Hendrickson immediately got a call from inside the school, where about 200 local residents were hunkered down as the storm was just getting started. The sergeant and his deputies scrambled in the rain and wind to check out the generator, and one deputy spotted the broken part.

Hendrickson started making calls, and it was Scott Faulkner from Faulkner Family Farms that told him he could help. Without hesitation, Hendrickson and Faulkner each drove out to meet at the farm, and were able to repair the broken piece.

“He was a complete hero. I don’t think he ever slept. He takes his job as a community servant to heart and does whatever he can to help,” Ricks said. “He just is just a true blessing anytime I need something, even if he’s off I text him and he if he doesn’t, if he’s not able, he finds the person and just gets it done.”

Myakka calls Rob before 911

Hendrickson is always only a phone call away, and most know that.

“They reach out to him first before they call 911,” Deputy Justin Yero said. “A lot of ranchers and farmers and community call us before they call 911 to get a faster response ... We’re out here already.”

Sometimes when residents can’t reach Hendrickson, they will call Yero, he explained. Yero has been with the Rural Unit for more than 10 years, so if Hendrickson is busy or can’t reached, only then will residents call Yero or 911.

“I’ve been fishing out of state and people are calling me,” Yero said. “I can answer the phone and give him an answer. Tell them who to call ... Rob’s pretty much the same way.”

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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