Latest weather wallop: Florida, Alabama flooding
A vehicle drives through heavy flooding on Thomas Drive during rush hour in Panama City, Fla. on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (AP Photo/News Herald, Patti Blake)
Vehicles rest at the bottom of a ravine after the Scenic Highway collapsed near Pensacola, Fla., Wednesday April 30, 2014. Heavy rains and flooding have left people stranded in houses and cars in the Florida Panhandle and along the Alabama coast. According to the National Weather Service, an estimated 15-20 inches of rain has fallen in Pensacola in the past 24 hours. (AP Photo/Pensacola News Journal, Katie E. King)
Larry Smith's camper shelter near Stedman, N.C., was destroyed after a possible tornado passed by his house Tuesday, April 29, 2014. At least five counties in eastern North Carolina reported tornadoes on Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, James Robinson)
Jones County residents take in the damage Tuesday, April 29, 2014 left behind by a tornado that ripped a path along U.S. 11 North near Sandersville, Miss. Monday, April 28. 2014. (AP Photo/The Hattiesburg American, Kelly Price)
Damage along Sampson Road in Jones County near Sandersville, Miss. is evident Tuesday, April 29, 2014 after a tornado passed through the area Monday night April 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Hattiesburg American, Kelly Price)
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, foreground left, and members of his party dodge debris left after a tornado struck the mobile home where Ray Harvey lives, Tuesday, April 29, 2014 near Stedman, NC. (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, Johnny Horne)
Ray Harvey talks on his cell phone while looking over the storm damage to the rear of his mobile home near Stedman, N.C., Tuesday, April 29, 2014. At least five counties in eastern North Carolina reported tornadoes on Tuesday. (AP Photo/The Fayetteville Observer, Johnny Horne)
PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. — In the latest blow from a dayslong 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.
Fire rescue crews weren’t able to respond to some calls for help because of road 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, aerial rescues were planned, 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, where some roads seemed more like flowing rivers. “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.
A portion of Interstate 10 north of Pensacola was closed early Wednesday but opened by midmorning. Other roads were closed, too. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 26 counties.
“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.”
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.
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. At least 35 people have been killed.
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.
Associated Press writers Freida Frisaro in Miami; Jeff Amy and Adrian Sainz in Louisville, Miss.; Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga.; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala.; and Erik Schelzig in Fayetteville, Tenn.; contributed to this report. Michael Hempen of AP Radio in Washington also contributed.