Swamp buggy driver helps rescue people trapped inside flooded homes

Flooding during Hurricane Irma damages homes near Sampson Lake

BRADFORD COUNTY, Fla. – Several people were trapped inside their homes after Hurricane Irma left parts of Bradford County flooded

News4Jax toured the damage Thursday on a swamp buggy, as it was the only option to get through the waters, which reach waist-high in some areas of the county. 

The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office asked Bill Wilson, the man driving the swamp buggy, to help with water rescues during the flooding, and from what we saw, the devastation from the high waters was unbelievable.

For the last few days, Wilson and his swamp buggy, also known as "The Yellow Jacket," have been rescuing people trapped inside their homes from flooding caused by Irma.

"They went to sleep thinking they were going to be able to get out the next day, and they were not able to. The water had rose overnight -- so much that the vehicles wouldn't allow them," Wilson said. 

The water was still about 3 to 5 feet deep as of Thursday, so the only way people can get out of their homes is by a vehicle like Wilson's swamp buggy.

On Tuesday, Wilson said, he drove to an elderly couple's house, where the husband had suffered a stroke. He said when he got to the home, no one was there. But two days later, he learned where they went. 

"I found out this morning, I found the lady and she was able -- two days ago -- she was able to get him out of here with a canoe," Wilson said.

He said it's hard seeing so many homes destroyed or damaged by floodwaters in the county he grew up in. 

"It hurts," Wilson said. "But it's part of life. If you're going to live here, if you choose to live here, then that's what you have to deal with." 

He said he’s just glad he and the Yellow Jacket can keep his community safe.

Floodwaters damage homes near Sampson Lake

Flooding from Hurricane Irma damaged several homes near Sampson Lake in Bradford County.

The area is known for flooding, but many people who live there said they've never seen the water this high.

Cindy Benton said her home, and neighborhood near Sampson Lake, were damaged by flooding for the third time in five years.

"I'm disgusted," Benton said. 

Hurricane Irma brought in waters 3 to 5 feet deep, which caused major damage to homes.

"I would love to see some assistance out here for some these people because some of these people lost everything they own," resident Rick Ward said. "These are people I've known for years and they're not here. They had to leave and they had to leave everything in the house. It came up so fast I had to go and leave it."

Benton said if the county and Suwannee River Water Management would have opened the water release gates to lower the lake levels months ago, the flooding could have been prevented.

"We were way above levels by the time Irma got here," Benton said. "Even though Irma did a whole bunch of damage, we could've helped the situation."

Bradford County Emergency Management officials told News4Jax there’s nothing they can do about the flooding when the county is hit by large amounts of rain at once.

They said the county opened three gates back in July, but when there’s large amounts of rain at one time, the water can’t run out fast enough.

But that’s not good enough for Benton.

"I want to meet with our community, with those people, and I want to know how to get on the board," she said.

Benton said there has to be a way to keep her neighbors and their homes safe from flooding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has designated Bradford County for individual assistance.

About the Author: