Torrential Rains Latest Severe Weather To Strike The South

After days of storms that dropped massive amounts of rain on the South, floods are sweeping across the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama Gulf Coast.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The South is recovering from a wave of severe weather that moved through the region this week. First there were tornados that cut a deadly path through eight states. Then torrential rains that caused flash flooding along the Gulf Coast.

NPR's Debbie Elliott was among those stranded by high water. She joins us now from her home in Orange Beach, Alabama. Good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So stranded there, Debbie. You're not the only one, though, stranded. Describe the situation along the Gulf Coast.

ELLIOTT: Yeah, it's been a real mess. Water is starting to recede slowly now, so we're starting to see some things clearing. But much of yesterday, you know, big sections of the Alabama coast and the Florida Panhandle were under water. Rescue crews were having to use boats and Humvees to get to people who were on their rooftops or they'd crawled into their attics because the water was rising so fast.

In Pensacola, there were there was a section of the Scenic Highway there, it's up on high bluffs over the bay and it just started to cave in. You can see where a huge chunk of the road just fell off, and cars and trucks going with it. We know that at least one person was killed on a flooded roadway, others stranded.

And there is word this morning from the county jail there, in the Pensacola area, that is flooded. And late last night there was a gas explosion there. Two inmates are reported dead, dozens injured; it's been evacuated.

So the big picture here is that there is a lot of water, there are a lot of issues. Homes are flooded out, entire neighborhoods are not navigable right now. Here in my neighborhood, at one point yesterday, you really couldn't tell where the water ended and the road began. Everything was just one big waterway.

MONTAGNE: Well, talk to us about the scene there where you are in Orange Beach.

ELLIOTT: You know, my street was only accessible by kayak or canoe for much of the day. And that's how neighbors went out checking on one another. People would row by and say: Are you OK, do you need anything? This is a low-lying area. Most of the homes are up on pilings. So while we were wet and we were stranded, we were lucky our homes were intact. There are people who've lost everything from the floods and the tornadoes.

But I took a kayak trip at one point yesterday, just to survey the damage and I recorded a little part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER)

ELLIOTT: Water coming up nearly to the bottoms of mailboxes; a lot of trashcans, propane tanks, spare lumber - those kinds of things that you might typically keep in a garage, floating out in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVING WATER)

MONTAGNE: So, Debbie, there you are near the coast. Is it rare that you get that kind of flooding?

ELLIOTT: It really isn't a thunderstorm. In my 22 years here, I've never seen that kind of water from thunderstorms. Hurricanes, yes, but in major hurricanes you get warnings such as Hurricane Ivan in 2004, you evacuate. You know, things might be flooded but you wait 'till the water recedes to come back in.

This event cropped up really, really quickly. And at some places, nearly two feet of rain fell in less than two days. There were just these relentless thunderstorms. They came in the night so no one was really ready for the high water that came. And that's why so many people who might've otherwise evacuated, had to be rescued when the water started rising.

MONTAGNE: And of course, as we mentioned earlier, the flooding came on the heels of the tornados that swept through the region earlier this week - widespread destruction.

ELLIOTT: Yes, there were 35 people who died, and just the sheer number of tornadoes were enormous - 65 hitting over the last few days in the region. But you know, public officials are crediting new federal radar equipment for isolating the risk and getting word out. And so they say it could have been a lot worse. U.S. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi toured the damage yesterday in his hometown of Tupelo and had this to say.

SENATOR ROGER WICKER: We are convinced that hundreds of lives were saved by the early warning that these government programs provided to our citizens. In my view, this is government at its best.

ELLIOTT: And now some of the residents of the region are eligible for federal disaster aid help with housing if they've lost their homes, that kind of thing. There have been disaster declarations in Mississippi and Arkansas, and other states are awaiting news of their disaster declarations. So for storm victims now it's cleanup time. People are just trying to mop up and salvage what they can and try to start over.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Debbie Elliot in Orange Beach, Alabama. Thanks very much.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Thank you, Renee.

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