Latest weather wallop: Florida, Alabama flooding

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- In the latest blow from a days-long chain of severe weather across the South and Midwest, the Florida Panhandle and Alabama Gulf Coast were hit with widespread flooding early Wednesday, with people stranded in cars and homes waiting for rescuers to find a way around impassable roads and others abandoning vehicles to walk to safety.

Crews weren't able to respond to some calls for help because of flooding in and around Pensacola, and one woman died when she drove her car into high water, officials said. Boats and jet skis were moved from the beaches to the streets, authorities planned aerial rescues, and the National Guard sent high-wheeled vehicles.

"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."

Some people left their flooded cars and walked to find help on their own. "We have people at the police department," Officer Justin Cooper said in Pensacola. "They walked up here and are hanging out until things get better."

As much as 15 to 20 inches had fallen in the city in a 24-hour period, National Weather Service meteorologist Phil Grigsby in New Orleans said Wednesday morning, with a few more inches expected. Average annual rainfall for Pensacola is 65 inches, meaning much of that area was seeing nearly a third of that amount in just one day.

In some neighborhood, streets flowed like rivers as water reached mailboxes. Cars were submerged in driveways, and residents paddled by on kayaks.

"We've seen pictures that people are posting with water halfway up their doors, front doors," Grigsby said. "It's going to be a big cleanup, looks like."

The widespread flooding is the latest wallop of a storm system that still packed considerable punch days after the violent outbreak began in Arkansas and Oklahoma. More than 30 people have been killed, including the 67-year-old driver in Pensacola.

In Pensacola Beach, people woke to violent storms, heavy rain and lightning. Standing water could be seen on many parts of the beach, and a military vehicle made its way through one heavily flooded neighborhood. Pensacola Naval Air Station's hospital was closed, as was the Air Force Special Operations center at Hurlburt Field.

Paul Schuster made an emergency run about 4 a.m. from Pensacola Beach to his mother's flooded home in nearby Gulf Breeze. The woman, 82, had to be rescued from by an emergency official in a boat, he said.

"The water was waist high," he said.

Ron Hruska's neighborhood was flooded, but his home, more elevated than others nearby, was safe. Hruska said there were flash flooding warnings on television throughout the 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 early Wednesday. 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."

Shelters opened for evacuees, but some people had difficulty traversing roads. Water covered parts of Alabama 59, the main road for beach-bound tourists.

In Mobile, a few dozen rescues were conducted, mostly on roads, the emergency management agency estimated.

"We do have a lot of roads that are still underwater," the agency's Glen Brannan said but noted improvements, with the worst weather to the east.

That included Baldwin County, where crews started rescues before midnight, 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."

Over the past four days, storms hit especially hard in places such as Arkansas' northern Little Rock suburbs and the Mississippi cities of Louisville and Tupelo. Arkansas, with 15 deaths after a tornado blasted through Sunday, and Mississippi, with 12 deaths from Monday's storms, accounted for the brunt of the death toll.

Authorities in Louisville searched until dark Tuesday for an 8-year-old boy missing since Monday's large tornado that killed his parents and destroyed the home where they lived. Though searchers didn't rule out finding the boy alive, officials were describing the process as one of recovery.

After days of destruction, some didn't take any chances late Tuesday with yet more tornado watches.

Simon Turner and her 7-year-old son, Christopher, scrambled to a shelter in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Frightened by memories of a killer tornado that partly demolished Tuscaloosa three years ago, the Turners had opted for refuge in a school with a reinforced hallway.

"We'll be here till they say it's OK to leave," Turner said before the all-clear came.

Some survived or died amid split-second decisions.

William Quinn, 25, and others dove under the gap beneath a house in Mars Hill, Miss., seconds before a tornado blew heavily damaged the home and sheared off the roofs of nearby poultry houses. He called his decision "a spur-of-the-moment thing."

In the southern Tennessee community of Fayetteville, a married couple was killed in a tornado Monday after returning to their mobile home when they mistakenly believed the danger had passed, a neighbor said. Authorities identified the victims as John Prince, 60, and his wife Karen, 44.

"We pulled up and were in shocked seeing our own home. But then we saw Karen's father, and he said `John and Karen are gone - They didn't make it,'" recalled neighbor Tiffani Danner. She had left and returned to find her own home destroyed as well.


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