PENSACOLA BEACH, Fla. - People were plucked off rooftops or climbed into their attics to get away from fast-rising waters when nearly 2 feet of rain fell on the Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast in the span of about 24 hours, the latest bout of severe weather that began with tornadoes in the Midwest.
On Wednesday, roads were chewed up into pieces or wiped out entirely, and neighborhoods were inundated, making rescues difficult for hundreds of people who called for help when they were caught off guard by the single rainiest day ever recorded in Pensacola.
Boats and humvees zigzagged through the flooded streets to help stranded residents. A car and truck plummeted 25 feet when portions of a scenic highway collapsed, and one Florida woman died when she drove her car into high water, officials said.
Near the Alabama-Florida line, water started creeping into Brandi McCoon's mobile home, so her fiance, Jonathan Brown, wrapped up her nearly 2-year-old son, Noah, in a blanket and they swam in neck-deep water to their car about 50 feet away.
Then, the car was flooded.
"Every which way we turned, there was a big ol' pile of water," she said.
Brown called 911 and eventually a military vehicle picked them up and took them to a shelter.
There were at least 30 rescues in the Mobile area of Alabama. Florida appeared to be the hardest hit. Gov. Rick Scott said officials there received about 300 calls from stranded residents.
At the Pensacola airport, 15.55 inches of rain fell Tuesday before midnight - setting a record for the rainiest single day in the city, according to data since 1880. By comparison, the airport in drought-stricken Los Angeles has recorded 15.9 inches of rain - since Jan. 1, 2012.
Pensacola and nearby Mobile are two of the rainiest cities in the U.S., averaging more than five feet of rain in a year, according to the National Climatic Data Center.
The National Weather Service said forecasters issued flash flood warnings as early as Friday, yet many people were still caught unaware.
The widespread flooding was the latest wallop from a violent storm system that began in Arkansas and Oklahoma and worked its way South, killing 37 people along the way.
In Gulf Shores, Ala., where nearly 21 inches of rain fell over a day's time, the scene resembled the aftermath of a hurricane. At the Sportsman Marina in Orange Beach, employee J.J. Andrews couldn't believe what she saw out the window.
"We've got water up in our parking lots," she said. "Our docks are underwater. It's worse than during Hurricane Ivan, is what they're saying. It's crazy."
The 2004 hurricane dumped 3 to 7 inches of rain along the Florida Panhandle.
By Wednesday afternoon, water had started to recede while the storm marched its way up the East Coast, bringing warnings of more tornadoes and flash flooding.
Over the last four days, the system created 65 tornadoes and slammed Arkansas' northern Little Rock suburbs and the Mississippi cities of Louisville and Tupelo. Arkansas had 15 deaths; Mississippi had 12.
Authorities in Louisville searched for a missing 8-year-old boy after a large tornado killed his parents and destroyed their home.
On Wednesday, Louisville officials said they were shifting priorities from response to cleanup.