PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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 of the Pensacola Police Department said. “They walked up here and are hanging out until things get better.”
As much as 15 to 20 inches had fallen in Pensacola in a 24-hour period, National Weather Service meteorologist Phil Grigsby in New Orleans said Wednesday morning, with a few more inches expected. Grigsby said aerial rescues were planned, and the county moved boats and jet skis from the beaches to the streets to help. A portion of Interstate 10 north of Pensacola and other roads were closed, and 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 that storms that started Sunday and spread from Oklahoma to North Carolina.
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 so high it reached the canal road linking the town with neighboring Orange Beach.
At Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, employee J.J. Andrews couldn’t believe what she saw out the window Wednesday morning.
“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.”
Several Alabama shelters opened for evacuees, but some people had difficulty traveling, with numerous roads south of Interstate 10 flooded. The Department of Transportation said water covered parts of Alabama 59, the main road for beach-bound tourists.
In the inland town of Silverhill, the National Weather Service projected the normally placid Fish River to crest above its all-time high set during Hurricane Danny in 1997.
In Mobile, the emergency management agency estimated that the county had performed a few dozen rescues, mostly of people whose cars were stuck on flooded roads.
“We do have a lot of roads that are still underwater,” Glen Brannan, plans and operations officer for the agency, said Wednesday, but he noted that things were improving, with the worst weather to the east of Mobile, including Gulf Shores.
On the eastern side of Mobile Bay in Baldwin County, crews had been rescuing stranded people since 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, the 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.
“We will overcome this,” Louisville Mayor Will Hill said against a backdrop of hundreds of damaged buildings, including two hilltop churches pounded to rubble. “We’re going to work together.”
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 storm 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., after hearing that a tornado watch had been issued around that city.
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.
The dead Monday included University of Alabama swimmer John Servati, who authorities say took shelter in the basement of a home when a retaining wall collapsed. Servati was a business major on the dean’s list.
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.”
But in the southern Tennessee community of Fayetteville, a married couple was killed Monday in a tornado after returning to their mobile home after mistakenly believing 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 came back 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.