Florida Panhandle assesses flood damage after heavy storms, More than 20 inches of rain have fallen on parts of the Panhandle and southern Alabama in the past two days, causing millions of dollars of damage and killing one person.The intensity of the storms is expected to diminish by nightfall, but scattered thunderstorms with an inch or two of rain are forecast to continue for the next week.
The storms left thousands without power at times, forced several hundred people into shelters and shut down most access to parts of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. County crews are beginning to assess damage to roads and bridges.
"This is going to take us a couple days to do," said Kathleen Dough-Castro, Escambia County public information officer. "There were areas of the county that 23 inches of rain. No drainage system is going to be able to handle that."
Floodwaters have been deep enough for some residents to float down the streets in kayaks and canoes. Some cars have been nearly submerged.
Still, some decided to make their way to the beach. Its relatively pristine appearance, unmarred by typical masses of seaweed that sometimes follow a storm, made swimming, boogie-boarding and surfing seem deceptively inviting.
A 23-year-old Mississippi man drowned Sunday in the surf at Pensacola Beach in an area without lifeguards, who ordered a dozen other swimmers out of the water elsewhere along the coast. A rip current warning remains in effect.
"There was a young man, college age or so, and a younger girl about 10 years" paddling on foam boogie boards, said Cindy Lasater, who was vacationing from Magnolia, Ark., and saw the rescue. "He started yelling help and waving his hands. He lost his boogie board, but the girl stayed on hers until somebody got out to help her."Floodwaters from torrential rains damaged homes and closed roads throughout the Florida Panhandle, cutting power to the county jail and sending residents to emergency shelters as the area braced for additional rains Sunday.
A tornado connected with the storm system also uprooted trees and destroyed chicken houses Sunday in southeastern Alabama, where an emergency official said a few homes were damaged but no injuries were reported.
More than 600 inmates at the Escambia County Jail in Florida were without power and air conditioning after the rains left more than 5 feet of water in the bottom floor, which also houses the laundry and kitchen facilities. Extra deputies were brought in to beef up security, and generators powered lights outside the facility to shine into the jail. Officials worked Sunday to pump out the excess water and assess the damage.
"The whole electrical system is underwater. It's going to be extensive damage," said Sgt. Mike Ward.
The parking lot of the sheriff's office was completely flooded, leaving some patrol cars and other fleet vehicles with water up to the hood. Some homes and businesses also had several feet of water inside, he said. Authorities estimated $3 million to $4 million in damages at the sheriff's facilities.
Sunday's rain could have been worse, coming on top of Saturday's record rainfall. After getting more than 13 inches on Saturday, Pensacola only saw another 1.92 inches of rain Sunday. Mobile had 5.79 inches on Saturday and another 2.79 inches Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
Forecasters originally feared that another 4 to 8 inches would fall Sunday on the coast, but the storm system pulled more of the precipitation farther inland, meteorologist Eric Esbensen said.
"That was a lifesaver," Esbensen said. "We couldn't handle another day of that."
More than 100 residents spent the night in three Red Cross shelters in Escambia County on Saturday night, including residents from a 50-unit apartment. Navy officials also set up housing for residents of a 22-home subdivision evacuated because of flooding, according to Red Cross officials.
It was difficult to assess the damage Sunday because many roads in Escambia County were still flooded. Emergency officials planned a more thorough inspection Monday after the waters recede.
Escambia officials asked residents to stay home and not travel as more rainfall was expected Sunday night. Much of the water had receded in nearby Santa Rosa County, but the area was under a flood warning.
About 40 homes had some level of flooding around the city of Gulf Breeze, where heavy rains left about 4 feet of water. Fire rescue officials were still assessing the extent of the damage Sunday. One person was rescued from a car stranded in the high waters. Three swimmers were taken to the hospital Saturday night after getting caught in rough waters, Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka said.
"I have never seen rain like that before ... yesterday it was torrential for extended periods of time, like two or three hours it didn't let up at all," she said.
A Santa Rosa Sheriff's deputy also reported large amounts of debris after a tornado touched down near a flea market, but there was no major damage to buildings.
A few more showers and thunderstorms were expected along the coast Monday, with 1 to 2 inches of rain possible in some areas. Some clearing could happen later Monday evening, Esbensen said.