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Okaloosa emergency crews responded heroically during Hurricane Sally action

Tom McLaughlin
Northwest Florida Daily News

CRESTVIEW — Okaloosa County's emergency managers weren't anticipating Hurricane Sally's late Tuesday night wobble, and neither were the county's residents, many of whom were caught off guard Wednesday by the storm's tenacity.

At 5:30 a.m. Wednesday as the storm was dumping more than 20 inches of rain on the south county and as much as 18 inches north of Eglin Air Force Base, county spokesman Christopher Saul reported that 79 people had been evacuated from the Baker area and another 543 people were "in need of rescue or evacuation" on and near Okaloosa Island.

A vehicle was swept off the road in heavy rain into swiftly rising water at Horsehead Creek. Almarante firefighters and the Okaloosa   County Swift Water Rescue Team saved the driver.

More:Historic rain event from Hurricane Sally keeps emergency crews busy

But pre-storm preparation for a worst-case scenario and a Floridian knack for riding out a storm gave rescue workers the leg up they needed to come through without loss of life or even serious injury.

However, there were a couple close calls that required heroics on the part of first responders.  

Perhaps the most harrowing rescue took place Wednesday about noon at Horsehead Creek near Laurel Hill when a vehicle was swept off the road in heavy rain and into swiftly rising water.

More:Shoal River flooding forces closing of several bridge crossings

More:Important Okaloosa Shoal River crossings have been re-opened

Okaloosa County EMS and sheriff's deputies assist a woman who had given birth at a Tom Thumb gas station near Crestview.

Charles Rainey and Randall Hatfield, two Almarante Fire Department volunteers, and the county's Swift Water Rescue Team led the rescue effort, according to Charles Carroll, Almarante's fire chief. They were assisted by other members of the department.

"When they got to the vehicle the man was at the passenger side door. The driver side door was blocked by trees and water was rushing into the cab," Carroll said. "They created a tether and Rainey took a life jacket and made it to the vehicle, where he convinced the motorist to put on the life jacket. They then freed him from the vehicle and got him to safety." 

The Almarante Fire Department, an all volunteer group based in extreme north Okaloosa, doesn't get much press. But Carroll, who took on the chief's job after a long career with the Crestview Fire Department, said the unit performed spectacularly last week in adverse conditions.  

"I'm very proud of my bunch of guys and gals," he said.

Two other significant calls answered by first responders involved childbirth.

Fort Walton Beach firefighters were called out in the middle of Hurricane Sally to assist  a woman whose water had broken, according to Capt. Thearon Shipman.

The road in front of the family's home was covered by at least a foot of water, Shipman said, and the family's Honda automobile would never have made it through to the hospital.

Okaloosa County's Swift Water Rescue Team and Almarante firefighters rescued the driver of  a vehicle that was swept off of the road as floodwaters from Hurricane Sally were rising.

An EMS unit did plow through the high water and delivered the mother-to-be to the care of health care professionals ahead of the baby's arrival, Shipman said.

Another storm baby entered the world at the Tom Thumb convenience store at the intersection of Antioch Road and U.S. Highway 90 near Crestview. 

An EMS crew arrived as the birth was beginning and assisted with delivering the child, according to Okaloosa County Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox. The crew then carried the mother and her newborn to the hospital.

The baby was born in her parents' car, according to an Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Facebook post.

"We arrived on scene and EMS was already preparing to transport the mom and child," the post said. "Beautiful outcome."

Aside from the dramatic north county rescue and the unforgettable moments for two families, fire chiefs in Okaloosa County had little to report in the way of unusual storm-related activity. 

Okaloosa Island Fire Chief Michael Strawn said his agency responded to a report of part of a roof being blown off an aging structure and "one whole disabled vehicle" stuck in the deep water that always pools at the intersection of Santa Rosa Boulevard and U.S. Highway 98. 

He credited island residents with knowing what they can and can't do during a tropical storm for helping to ease the burden on first responders.

"For the most part people that are left here at this time of year are residents," he said. "Most of our residents have gone through one or two of these."  

Maddox said the men and women who suited up to respond to emergencies created by Sally deserve accolades, whether they were called to a dangerous situation or not.  

"The heroic actions in these storms begin with first responders being willing to leave their families and sleep at the Emergency Operations Center for days on end, hoping that their loved ones are faring well in the storm, all to provide the citizens of Okaloosa County with premier public safety service," he said.