People were plucked off rooftops or climbed into their attics to get away from fast-rising waters when nearly 60 centimetres of rain fell on the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast in the span of about 24 hours, the latest bout of severe weather that began with tornadoes in the Midwest.
In the Panhandle on Wednesday, roads were chewed up into pieces or wiped out entirely. A car and truck plummeted over seven metres when portions of a highway collapsed. Cars were submerged or overturned and neighbourhoods were inundated, making rescues difficult for hundreds of people who called for help when they were caught off guard by the torrential rains.
Boats and Humvees zigzagged through the flooded streets to help stranded residents. At the height of the storm, about 30,000 people were without power. One woman died when she drove her car into high water, officials said.
- Why are tornadoes so unpredictable?
- Inside a supercell tornado
- FAQ: Tornadoes, what they are and how they form
- 10 deadliest tornadoes in Canada and the U.S.
Kyle Schmitz was at home with his 18-month-old son Oliver on 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.
“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.”
'I was scared out of my wits. Water started coming in and I wasn't sure what to do' - Elizabeth Peaden, Pensacola resident
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.
In Alabama, Capt. David Spies of Fish River/Marlow Fire and Rescue said he was part of a team who found two women and a young boy trapped in the attic of a modular home.
Spies said they received the first call of help before midnight Tuesday but they couldn't find the group until about 8 a.m. Wednesday. By then, the water was 2 feet below the roof. A firefighter used an axe to punch a hole through the roof and free them.
"They were very scared, they were very upset. I would've been, too," Spies said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said officials received about 300 calls for rescues.
One third of a year’s rainfall in a day
About 56 centimetres 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 — about 28 centimetres — 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 because the rain happened so fast.
Elizabeth Peaden was at her weekly Bunco game Tuesday night. It wasn't raining on her way there, but on her way home, 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 waded her way to a nearby American Legion post where she and about 20 other stranded travellers spent the night sleeping on tables or the floor. At one point, officials said more than 100 people were at shelters.
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 Florida.
Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons said two vehicles fell over seven metres when portions of a highway that runs through residential neighbourhoods along the city's bay front collapsed. The truck driver was fine, but a woman in a car needed help getting out. Neither had serious injuries, Simmons said.
Alabama looks as though a hurricane hit
In Gulf Shores, Ala., where nearly 53 centimetres of rain fell in a day's time, the scene resembled the aftermath of a hurricane. At the Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, 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 8 to 17 centimetres of rain along the Florida Panhandle.
By Wednesday afternoon, water started to recede while the storm marched its way up the East Coast, bringing warnings of more flash flooding. Emergency officials in Maryland said crews rescued motorists who were stranded in high water.
Over the past four days, the system created 65 tornadoes and slammed Arkansas' northern Little Rock suburbs and the Mississippi cities of Louisville and Tupelo. Arkansas had 15 deaths; Mississippi had 12.