Raritan Township police officer recounts his determination to survive Ida's flooding
A police officer came dangerously close to losing his life during the height of Tropical Storm Ida.
Raritan Township Police Officer Michael Podlaski was out driving in the storm around midnight searching for stranded drivers when raging floodwaters took control.
"It really didn't quite set in until after everything happened. Once I got out of the car. I was fine. I was more upset that a car was down and we were short a guy on the road," the 30-year-old recalls, but his first thought after cheating death was about his fellow police officers.
Hunterdon County had 325 water rescues with about a third of them in Raritan Township. Of the 30 New Jersey residents killed during Ida, six lead back to Hunterdon.
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Podlaski was checking on a report of a submerged car. Coming down a hill made it harder for Podlaski to see the flood. He slammed into it and his massive Tahoe SUV started floating toward the Neshanic River.
He spun around, got pinned against some trees and couldn't open his door. He escaped through the passenger window.
"The water was coming. It was about up to my knees, eventually went to my waist and I realized the only way out was to get to the window because the door was stuck against the tree," Podlaski says.
He admits there were moments of panic, he even thought about calling his loved ones, but he snapped out of it and climbed to the roof, but then the SUV started floating again.
He jumped off and swam to safety.
"The water was over my head. The current was strong I had to swim to a point where I could stand up there was a lot of debris floating by," Podlaski says.
He later learned the man he was trying to save made it out OK. But news wasn't traveling so fast that night as the county got some 3,000 911 calls over 12 hours because the area had to ride out a tornado warning on top of the flooding.
"There were a lot of people who were focused on the tornado warning and trying to shelter, and once that tornado warning lifted right after 7 o'clock, that was a critical time when it came to the rainstorm. People were looking to hustle home," Deputy Director of Board of County Commissioners John Lanza explains.
Except for Podlaski, who worked another seven hours before he completed his shift.
"Then I was going to help sort calls out and help dispatch control through all the calls and how the calls were handled, what needs to be handled and basically just help [get] everything organized," Podlaski says.
The Raritan Police Department is extremely proud of Podlaski’s work that night, along with the other officers who stepped up to work during Ida and in the storm’s aftermath. That includes Sgt. Chris Vallat, Officer Adam Swiatek, Officer Robert Schenk, Officer Chris Slomkowski, Detective Ryan Garbolino, Cpl. Geoff Benz, Officer Brian Mayer, Officer Connor Gallagher, Capt. Thomas Camporeale, Sgt. Michael Dendis, Officer Ismael Mendez, Officer Philip Canale, Sgt. William Cialone, Officer William McEnroe, Officer Nick Villa, Detective Ryan Barry, and Lt. Joeseph Canonica.
Podlaski wasn't completely alone when he jumped off that SUV.
A corrections officer was in the area and talked him through it, but Podlaski never did get his name.