PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — People were plucked off rooftops or climbed into their attics to get away from fast-rising waters when nearly 2 feet of rain fell on the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast, the latest bout of violent weather that began with tornadoes in the Midwest.
In the Panhandle, roads were chewed up into pieces or wiped out entirely. Cars were submerged and neighborhoods were inundated, making rescues difficult for hundreds of people who called for help when they were caught off guard by the torrential rains in the span of about 24 hours.
In the aftermath, people cruised around on paddleboards. Boats and Humvees zigzagged through the flooded streets to make rescues. About 30,000 people were without power, and one woman died when she drove her car into high water, officials said.
Kyle Schmitz was at home with his 18-month-old son Oliver Tuesday night when heavy rain fell during a 45-minute span in Pensacola. He gathered up his son, his computer and important papers and decided to leave when the waters quickly started to rise.
“I opened the garage and the water immediately flowed in like a wave,” he said. “The water was coming up to just below the hood of my truck and I just gassed it.”
Schmitz and his son made it out safely. He returned Wednesday to assess the damage at his rented home in the East Hill neighborhood. The water was up to his shins and he feared he would never again live in the home.
Elsewhere, water lingered above mailboxes. Florida Gov. Rick Scott said officials received about 300 calls for rescues and had completed about 210 of those by midmorning. Some people abandoned flooded cars and walked to find help.
“It’s gotten to the point where we can’t send EMS and fire rescue crews out on some 911 calls because they can’t get there,” Escambia County spokesman Bill Pearson said. “We’ve had people whose homes are flooding and they’ve had to climb up to the attic.”
About 22 inches of rain fell in Pensacola — one-third of what falls in an entire year. National Weather Service officials were still sorting out official numbers because equipment that serves Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola lost power during the storm.
Meteorologist Jeffrey Medlin said what they had recorded officially — more than 11 inches — would be the fourth highest total for a calendar day since 1879.
Medlin said flash flood warnings were issued as early as Friday. Still, many people were caught unaware.
Elizabeth Peaden was driving home from her weekly Bunco game Tuesday night when she drove her van through a flooded intersection and got stuck.
“I was scared out of my wits. Water started coming in and I wasn’t sure what to do,” she said.
Peaden made her way to a nearby American Legion post where she and other stranded travelers spent the night sleeping on tables.
The widespread flooding was the latest wallop from a violent storm system that began in Arkansas and Oklahoma and worked its way South, killing 37 people along the way, including the 67-year-old driver in Pensacola.
Ron Hruska’s neighborhood was flooded, but his home was safely on higher ground. Hruska said there were flash flooding warnings on television throughout Tuesday night but that the water came up faster than expected.
“I’ve never seen it this bad in 12 years here,” he said. “It wasn’t even this bad after hurricanes.”
In Gulf Shores, Ala., where nearly 21 inches of rain fell in a day’s time, the scene resembled the aftermath of a hurricane. The intracoastal waterway rose, reaching the canal road linking the town with neighboring Orange Beach.
There, at Sportsman Marina, employee J.J. Andrews couldn’t believe what she saw out the window.
“We’ve got water up in our parking lots,” she said. “Our docks are under water. It’s worse than during Hurricane Ivan, is what they’re saying. It’s crazy.”
The 2004 hurricane dumped 3 to 7 inches of rain along the Florida Panhandle.
In Baldwin County, Ala., crews started rescues before midnight Tuesday, said Mitchell Sims, emergency management director.
“As soon as we get a water rescue team in here, they’re sent back out,” he said. “We’re rescuing people from cars, from rooftops, from all over the place.
“I think we’re going to be dealing with this for days. I don’t know where the water’s going to go. Everything is saturated.”
But there were reports of water already receding in Pensacola.
Over the past four days, storms slammed Arkansas’ northern Little Rock suburbs and the Mississippi cities of Louisville and Tupelo. Arkansas had 15 deaths after a tornado blasted through Sunday, and Mississippi had 12 deaths from Monday’s storms.
Authorities in Louisville searched until dark Tuesday for a missing 8-year-old boy. A large tornado killed his parents and destroyed their home. Though searchers didn’t rule out finding the boy alive, officials described it as a recovery process.
On Wednesday, Louisville officials said they were shifting priorities from response to cleanup. They expected volunteers to stream into the town to lend a hand.
“Today is the day we start putting Louisville back together,” said Buddy King, county emergency management director.