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‘Calling for us to help’: Pinellas deputies talk about rescuing people from Eta’s waters

As Eta brought high flooding into the area, particularly beach communities, deputies worked until the early morning to rescue them.

As the high tide and flood water came in, so did the Humvees.

Though Tropical Storm Eta’s path was unpredictable, Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputies monitored the path and started preparing high-water cars, boats and other rescue tools, just in case.

It was needed. The area got about 3 to 4 feet of storm surge, according to the National Hurricane Center. In low-lying beach areas in Pinellas County, deputies rescued at least 33 people — and some animals — from homes and cars. Nine deputies worked on the rescue, with others available if needed, said Sgt. Matthew Thornton.

“We wouldn’t have been able to get there with any of our standard vehicles,” Thornton said. “Some of these places were deep enough over the high water tide mark that it was inaccessible by even emergency vehicles.”

Even with the Humvees, water was high enough that it touched the bottom of the cab, Thornton said.

Calls began rushing in around 9 p.m. Wednesday and deputies worked until about 4:30 a.m., when they noticed the water lowering enough that standard patrol Chevrolet Tahoes could get through.

During the worst flooding of the night, the Sheriff’s Office got calls to assist other emergency services in getting through. One of the last calls was an assist to Fire Rescue, which was having trouble getting through the floodwaters, Thornton said.

“Some of these people have lived here for decades and never had water in their house,” Thornton said.

Deputy Jason Fineran’s first rescue of the night was also his first with the department. But he said there wasn’t worry, just focus on how to get people out as efficiently as possible along Pinellas’s long stretch of beaches.

“We had to get to the citizens that were calling for us to help them out,” he said. “There were only so many of us.”

His first call came in around 9:30 p.m. from Redington Shores. Water had rushed into an elderly couple’s home, filling it about 1 to 2 feet high, he said. Fineran and his partner helped the couple, and their cats, out the window. Almost immediately after, Fire Rescue pointed them to a house three doors down where a family of three and their dog also had to be lifted through the window as water rushed in.

But what stood out in Fineran’s mind the most was in Madeira Beach, where he saw a family with three small children, two birds and a dog on the curb. The mother was calling from beach resort to beach resort but couldn’t find a place that would accommodate them until Alden Suites Beach Resort agreed.

“We ended up taking them there and thankfully they found them a nice dry spot for the night,” he said.

Thornton said in the rush of the night, deputies' soaked notepads and some people declining to offer their names means there could be more than 33 people who were rescued. And that was with a smaller storm, he said.

If another storm like Eta hits the area, Thornton said residents should keep an eye out for their flood advisory level.

“The biggest thing, don’t try to drive,” he said. “There’s a lot of ruined vehicles out there.”

• • •

2020 Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Guide

HURRICANE SEASON IS HERE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane

PREPARE FOR COVID-19 AND THE STORM: The CDC's tips for this pandemic-hurricane season

PREPARE YOUR STUFF: Get your documents and your data ready for a storm

BUILD YOUR KIT: The stuff you’ll need to stay safe — and comfortable — for the storm

PROTECT YOUR PETS: Your pets can’t get ready for a storm. That’s your job

NEED TO KNOW: Click here to find your evacuation zone and shelter

Lessons from Hurricane Michael

What the Panhandle’s top emergency officials learned from Michael

‘We’re not going to give up.’ What a school superintendent learned from Michael

What Tampa Bay school leaders fear most from a storm

Tampa Bay’s top cops fear for those who stay behind

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