AMITE CITY — Dorothy Brooks sat in the same wheelchair, in the same Amite City house as she did Aug. 12, 2016, the day the water rose. This time, almost a year later, she sat ready to meet the man who rescued her.
“I didn’t think it was that bad," Brooks, 70, said, recalling last summer's devastating flood.
She had been inside the home with her family on that August day, and before she realized what was happening, the front yard was under water. Then the front porch. Then slowly the home's floorboards.
“I worried about how soon they were going to get her out of here," said Brooks' sister, Laverne Andrews, who lives with her. "The water was coming up high fast."
Andrews recalled how Tangipahoa Parish sheriff's deputies arrived on their no-outlet street as the water was filling the low-lying land, but they first worked to evacuate homes farther back on Bankston Road so no residents would get stranded.
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Time was working against Andrews and Brooks. The water kept rising, and within an hour it was in their house, which sits at least 2 feet above the ground.
Andrews said she wandered out into the water because she wanted to make sure the authorities knew she had a house full of people unable to make their own escape: her older sister, Brooks, and her four grandchildren, ages 10 and younger.
"I remember when we were going to the back (of Bankston Road), y'all didn’t have any water in here," said Sgt. Thomas Wheeler, the deputy who carried Brooks to safety, wading through almost waist-deep water — a moment that was forever captured by an Advocate photographer.
"When I first passed, (the water) was probably at about the middle (porch) step, I could see the steps," Wheeler said. "By the time we finished up back there, there was probably 4 to 5 inches in the house."
A relentless onslaught of rain drove down on the Baton Rouge area Friday, driving people fro…
Wheeler walked up those front steps once again in July, this time taking Brooks' hand and introducing himself. Looking up at the deputy at least twice her size, Brooks joked he was even bigger than she remembered.
“I sure thank you for rescuing me," Brooks said, her wavering voice almost hard to make out. “Every time it rains, I think about it.”
“That’s what we do," Wheeler replied. “It wasn’t just me, we had a small army out here. We had four or five guys that helped, too.”
By the time Wheeler and his team had assisted everyone in the extended family to safety, the house had 2 feet of water inside, Andrews said.
Andrews and the family stayed in a local community center that first night, then in a motel and at friends’ houses. Andrews worked quickly to get back into her home, renovating room by room. Almost 12 months later, she said, the house is pretty much back to normal — but the effects of the flood linger.
"Every time it rains and thunders, (my granddaughter) gets so scared, she puts her hands over her ears," Andrews said. "Ever since then, she’s worried it’s going to flood."
The photo of Wheeler carrying Brooks from the house — taken by Advocate photographer Travis Spradling — became an icon of the flood, often used by politicians to demonstrate the effects of the flood as they worked to get help for their constituents.
"That picture helped a lot of people,” Wheeler said.
To capture that moment, Spradling had followed instructions from his editor to capture the flooding in Amite, and with guidance from authorities and reporters, he found the Sheriff's Office working on Bankston Road — though he could only drive so far down the flooded road.
"I parked in a soggy field and hiked in, and basically hiked until I started seeing people coming out of houses," Spradling said. "The first pictures I shot there were of Ms. Brooks."
Spradling also shot a photo of deputies carrying Andrew's 7-year-old grandson to safety, an image he said he found just as impactful as the one with Brooks.
"The big challenge was trying to stay out of Sgt. Wheeler's way," Spradling said. "He was trying to walk forward, I was trying to walk backward — it was all I could do to get close enough to them to make a good picture."
And walking backward in a flood can be dangerous, he noted, but especially bogged down with expensive and necessary photography equipment.
"The primary concern is getting the pictures, the secondary concern is making sure my equipment will work tomorrow," Spradling said, remembering the relentless pouring rain.
Despite the circumstances, Wheeler said it meant a lot to be able to see Brooks doing well a year later.
"She reminds me a lot of my mom," Wheeler said. "My mom was small like that. She passed from cancer. When I picked (Brooks) up, I remembered picking my mom up."