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From rescuer to rescued: Cop survives fierce flash flood

The funny thing about Texas weather is how quickly it can change without any warning - and September 19th was one of those nights

Editor’s note: As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest and most heroic news stories, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in the incidents to find out what has developed since, and how the department has faired in the days and months following.

In this article, Officer Josh Odom recounts the horrific night that he was swept away in a Texas flood and how his fellow brothers in blue came to his rescue.

By Officer Josh Odom
Rollingwood, Texas Police

I’ve been working as a police officer for the city of Rollingwood for close to 11 months. One thing that I was warned of was how quickly city streets can flood when it rains.

The funny thing about Texas weather is how quickly it can change without any warning. September 19th was one of those nights.

I’d heard there was going to be rain and possible flooding, but there was no definitive word. When we expect large amounts of rain, we set out barricades so that it will be easier to block off the road if it does flood.

I remember discussing whether or not to put out the barricades with my partner. Neither of us deemed it necessary. As normal, he left work at his shift’s end at 12 AM. It was barely sprinkling and being so late, I assumed that the storm had passed. I parked my unit on top of one of the parking garages in our city to watch and see if the storm would come in.

From Rain to Flood
At about 1:15 AM, the downpour began.

After having some difficulty with the built-in barricades, I was able to shut down a small section of road before moving on to Bee Caves Road – a section of road that runs alongside a large creek. I parked on one end of the road to block it and then walked to the other end to turn around any cars that were coming from the opposite direction. By this point the water was already up to my knees.

I had called for assistance from a nearby officer once he was done taking care of any low-water crosses he had. I had successfully turned around several cars that were trying to cross.

Then I saw a vehicle approaching that I thought appeared to have a light bar on top of the car. I thought that this was the other officer approaching but visibility was poor so I couldn’t be sure. I shined my flashlight at the car, but stepped off to the side. As the car became visible I realized that it was not the officer, but a woman who wasn’t slowing down. As she drove by, I began to hit her back windows with my hands and yell for her to slow down. Next thing I knew, her car was in front of me getting swept into the flood.

I began to reach for my radio to inform dispatch of what was happening, when I was swept in as well.

Saved by a Tree Branch
Before I knew it, I was completely submerged in water and being tossed around like a ragdoll. I couldn’t get a breath and took in two big gulps of water. At that moment, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.

Then, by the grace of God, I was able to grab onto a tree branch and hold on. I found some footing and could finally catch my breath. The water was still moving fast and was up to my shoulders. I looked to my right and saw the woman on top of her car.

I yelled at her to stay there, but she couldn’t hear me. I radioed for help and told dispatch that there was a woman on top of her car before shedding my radio and any other gear that I had so that it didn’t drag me further into the creek.

As I clung tightly to the branch, the other officer arrived. He pointed across the creek at the business center parking lot where a woman was walking around, completely drenched. Instantly, I knew that it was the woman who drove past me – the same one who minutes ago was on her vehicle – and I was relieved to know that she was okay.

About five minutes later, a few other officers arrived – one of them a friend of mine from a nearby department. Without fire or EMS on-scene, the officers started to throw me a rope bag. After several attempts, the rope got close enough to me that I could get a grip. I got a good grip on the bag and let go of the tree branch.

I was immediately swept downstream as the officers furiously worked to pull me in. As soon as I hit concrete, one of the officers grabbed me my by belt and yanked me to the road. I collapsed from exhaustion. I had been in the water for about 20 to 30 minutes and could barely walk.

I was transported to the hospital where I was kept for 24 hours to clear any water out of my lungs and to make sure I didn’t get any sort of infection. I received three stitches in my hand and had a fractured finger, but only received other minor cuts and bruises. All things considered, it was a miracle.

The Healing Process
I was out of work for a month to heal from all the injuries – both physical and emotional. Though I’ve been able to process what happened, I still see a psychologist to try to adjust to a new normal.

The hardest part about it all was the fact that while I survived, there was a Travis County Deputy who was in a similar situation and did not make it. I spent a lot of time questioning why I survived and why it happened to me. I beat myself up about it, but with the help of family and friends I was able to come to terms with everything that happened. My department was absolutely phenomenal in the all the support that they gave me and have taken several proactive steps to make sure that an event such as this does not happen again.

The department ordered life jackets to wear during flooding that will instantly inflate if we ever get swept in. We now carry throw ropes with bags in all of our units. We also took a level 1 awareness class on how to throw the ropes if someone gets swept in and what actions to take if it does occur.

A Turning Point
There are two types of people who go through an incident like this: those who choose to look at it as just an event and those who look at it as a turning point in their life.

I fall in the latter group. I am forever grateful for all of the support I received. From those who brought me and my family food, to those who were able to use similar experiences to help me cope and to the officers who pulled me out of the water. It has been a sobering experience and I hope that one day I am able to help someone who goes through a similarly tough experience.