FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — South Florida began draining streets and otherwise cleaning up Thursday after an unprecedented storm that dumped upward of 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain in a matter of hours, causing widespread flooding, closing a key airport and turning thoroughfares into rivers.
Fort Lauderdale issued a state of emergency as flooding persisted in parts of the city. Crews worked through the night to attend rescue calls, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths. Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, which closed Wednesday evening, said it would not reopen until 5 a.m. Friday because of debris and massive flooding.
Broward County schools canceled classes Thursday, including after-school and extracurricular activities, after water flooded hallways and classrooms at some schools. Service was restored on South Florida’s high-speed commuter rail, Brightline, after it briefly shut down Wednesday evening.
More showers, thunderstorms and local flooding were in the forecast from the National Weather Service on Thursday. An additional 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 centimeters) of rain was possible.
Amanda Valentine was driving when she received a warning about flash flooding on her phone.
“The water started rising; I thought I was going to drown,” Valentine said, adding that she was terrified when she couldn’t open her car door or roll the windows down. “Nothing was working. All the lights were going on in my car, so nothing was operating. And I thought, ‘I’m going to drown.’ I called my parents like, ‘I’m going to die. Like I’m going to drown. There’s no way for me to get out of this car.’ And they couldn’t help me. I called 911 and they told me they couldn’t help me.”
She eventually forced the door open and got to safety.
Tow truck driver Keith Hickman said he saw abandoned cars “floating like boats” in the streets of Fort Lauderdale.
“There were hundreds of cars up and down here,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I have never seen cars bumper-boating each other and floating. And a truck would come by and the wake would push the cars into the other cars and they were just floating. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
In Broward County, where rains started Monday before the heaviest rains arrived Wednesday afternoon, crews worked Thursday to clear drains and fire up pumps to clear standing water.
The Red Cross set up a staging area to help residents whose homes were flooded, providing them with blankets and coffee, officials said.
In the Sistrunk neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, stalled cars, including Jose Heredia’s BMW sedan, dotted the flooded streets. Heredia, a paralegal, was heading to work Thursday morning when he got stuck.
“I didn’t think it was that bad. It has never been this bad; I have never seen it to this extent,” Heredia said. A tow truck company said he faced a wait of five hours or longer.
“It’s a bad day,” he said. “I should have just stayed at home.”
Nearby, 74-year-old Bobbie Ponder hiked up her dress to push her bicycle the last block to Ray’s Market to get a money order for her internet bill, only find it flooded and closed. Bags of potato chips and Cheetos floated in a foot of water as workers tried to clean up.
Ponder, who lives in a third-floor apartment, said she didn’t think the flooding would be that bad until she tried to ride her bike. She was trying to keep the flooding in perspective, comparing it against tornadoes that recently hit other states, killing dozens of people.
“We are blessed — a lot of them died,” she said.
Fort Lauderdale City Hall remained closed Thursday with ground-floor flooding and no power. A tunnel carrying U.S. Route 1 under a river and a major street in downtown Fort Lauderdale was also closed, along with some ramps to Interstate 95.
At the airport, enough water had drained by early Thursday to allow people to drive on the upper level — or departures — road to pick up waiting passengers. But the entrance to the lower-level, or arrivals, road remained closed, officials tweeted.
Shawn Bhatti, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Miami, said the region received “an unprecedented amount” of rain. The weather service was still confirming totals, but some gauges showed up to 25 inches (63.5 centimeters) of rainfall.
“For context, within a six-hour period the amount that fell is about a 1 in 1,000 chance of happening within a given year,” Bhatti said. “So it’s a very historical type of event.”