South Florida was under siege and under water Thursday amid a storm that dumped 25 inches of rain over some coastal areas, flooding homes and highways and forcing the shutdown of a major airport.
Fort Lauderdale was slammed with 25.95 inches of rainfall in 24 hours, AccuWeather reported. Some areas received 20 inches of rain in six hours. Hollywood and South Miami received at least 9 inches of rain.
"The amount of rain, the rainfall rate is something you should see once in in every 1,000 years or once in every 2,000 years," Dan DePodwin, AccuWeather's director of forecast operations, told USA TODAY.
AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jonathan Porter said at one point Fort Lauderdale got about 1 1/2 inches of rain in 10 minutes, "close to the United States’ all-time record for rain in that short period of time.”
Both Fort Lauderdale and its home county of Broward issued a state of emergency as flooding forced residents in some areas to wade through knee-high water or use canoes and kayaks to navigate the streets. Work crews cleared drains and pumped out standing water Thursday after the previous day's deluge.
A flood watch was in effect across much of South Florida through Thursday night, the National Weather Service said.
Sections of I-95, the state's main north-south traffic artery, were overwhelmed by water for several hours. Fort Lauderdale Fire Chief Stephen Gollan warned of "severe flooding in multiple areas" of the city of 180,000 residents.
"Stay off the roads until some of this water dissipates," Gollan warned. "There are cars getting stuck in flooded waters, just (adding) to the emergencies that are taking place."
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►Part of the roof of a shopping plaza in Fort Lauderdale collapsed, according to WPLG, which showed images of a huge hole in what the TV station said was previously a Bealls Outlet department store.
►Video from Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport showed water coming in the door at a terminal and a virtual river rushing down the tarmac between planes.
►The Red Cross was setting up a staging area to help residents whose homes were flooded, providing them with blankets and coffee, officials said.
Fort Lauderdale flooding, rain are 'life threatening'; tornadoes possible
The one-day rain total in Fort Lauderdale is equal to almost 40% of the average for an entire year, DePodwin said. The National Weather Service issued a flash flood emergency for Fort Lauderdale and other areas into Thursday as the chance of thunderstorms continued across the region, warning: “This is a life-threatening situation. Seek higher ground now!”
Heavy rain was possible late Thursday, the weather service said, especially over the metro areas of Broward and Miami Dade counties, which could lead to flooding across areas that are already saturated from recent heavy rainfall. Scattered thunderstorms were expected to continue into Thursday evening, some severe in nature with damaging winds and hail up to the size of quarters. A few brief tornadoes were possible, forecasters said.
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Fort Lauderdale airport shut down until Friday after 'unprecedented rainfall'
The storms prompted Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport to suspend all flights Wednesday afternoon and won't reopen until 5 a.m. Friday because of debris and massive flooding. Access was another issue: The airport's roadways were shut down by flooding. Travelers were warned not to attempt to enter or leave the airport. More than 650 flights were canceled Thursday, according to FlightAware.
"While stalled vehicles are being removed from the upper/lower levels, the main exit artery remains flooded & congested with slow-moving traffic," the airport said in a statement early Thursday. "We ask for your patience as we wait to safely assess the impacts of this unprecedented rainfall to restore airport operations when it is safe."
'I thought I was going to drown,' driver says
After getting a warning about flash flooding on her phone while driving, Amanda Valentine quickly became scared when realizing she couldn't open her car door or roll down the windows amid the rising water.
“I thought I was going to drown,” Valentine said. “Nothing was working. All the lights were going on in my car, so nothing was operating. ... 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 hundreds of abandoned cars in Fort Lauderdale floating in the streets.
“It was unbelievable,'' Hickman said. "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.''
Rain total could be a state record
The highest preliminary rainfall total shared by the National Weather Service's office in Miami so far is 25.91 inches at a Weather STEM station at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood Airport.
If the weather service verifies that rainfall total, it would break the state’s 24-hour rain record by 2.63 inches. The current record – 23.28 inches – was set on Nov. 11-12, 1980 in Key West.
The weather service also confirmed two EF-0 tornadoes in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.
– Dinah Pulver
Broward County closes schools
Broward County shut down all of its more than 300 public schools because of the weather crisis. Toni Barnes, Broward Schools director of emergency management, told WPLG-TV that some schools experienced severe flooding.
“The water made its way into the hallways, into the classrooms," Barnes said. "We had to call fire rescue to assist our parents out of their cars to get them into the school because they were trapped.”
The county's 300-plus schools, which serve about 260,000 students, will remain closed until Monday after sustaining at least $2 million in damages, officials said at a news conference.
Contributing: Kayla Jimenez
Threat of severe flooding to spread up to Carolinas
Thunderstorms and winds continued to gain strength over the northern and eastern Gulf of Mexico, Accuweather warned. The threats were forecast to spread across parts of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas into Friday evening.
Late last week forecasters had warned the emerging storm system could become the first April tropical storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico. AccuWeather reported on Monday that the conditions for a tropical storm to develop had deteriorated but warned of heavy rains, gusty winds and thunderstorms.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fort Lauderdale flood updates: 25 inches of rain; airport shut down