Sarah Harper of Pensacola, Fla., was driving home with her 4-year-old son Tuesday night when she experienced the scariest moment of her life, with torrents of rain surrounding her.
“It was coming down in sheets, and there were insane amounts of wind,” said Harper, 26. “I’ve been here for six years but my grandmother, who is 77, has been here for most of her life and she said outside of hurricanes she has never seen rain like this. It was even worse than Hurricane Ivan.”
Many people were comparing the downpour and the flooding to Ivan in 2004 or Hurricane Danny in 1997. According to the National Weather Service, about 5.68 inches of rain fell on Pensacola in just one hour Tuesday evening, an event that statistics say happens just once every 200 to 500 years.
The 24-hour total was 11.13 inches and would have been more if a power outage had not caused the loss of some data, the National Weather Service said. Even so, the daily number was the equivalent of a once-in-a-generation event -- every 25 years. Over two days, some areas of Florida received up to 22 inches of rain, the equivalent of about a third of the annual rainfall in an almost continuous burst. The Alabama coast also was inundated.
On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for more than two dozen counties in the Panhandle and nearby areas because of heavy rain that shut down highways and created rivers where streams used to be. The threat of flash flooding existed from Florida through the Eastern Shore states and even into parts of upstate New York.
The latest storms come on the heels of strong winds, hail, driving thunderstorms and tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi beginning on Sunday, leaving about three dozen people dead. Arkansas bore the brunt of the tornado outbreak with at least 15 deaths. Mississippi reported 12 deaths Monday related to the weather.
The states are expected to seek federal aid to cope with the weather-related disaster.
Interstate 10 at the Alabama-Florida line was shut, stranding people in their cars while the heavy rains wiped out a section of the Scenic Highway that runs along the western side of Escambia Bay near Pensacola. Floodwaters hindered rescue efforts, Scott told a news conference Wednesday. Officials received about 300 calls for evacuation in the Pensacola area and had completed about 210, the governor said.
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