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News Wrap: Slow-moving storm drowns parts of Southeast with record rainfall

April 30, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The worst flooding in decades literally drowned parts of the Florida Panhandle and coastal Alabama today. The deluge was triggered by the same front that’s spawned tornadoes and killed at least 37 people this week.

Streets turned into rivers, and cars into islands, as rain started pouring yesterday, from Gulf Shores, Alabama, to Pensacola, Florida, and didn’t stop.

BILL SCOTT: I came down about 6:00 this morning to check on everything. And the water was probably up to the sidewalk. And that was the first time in about 29 years. I have never seen it get this deep before.

GWEN IFILL: The water was waist-high in some places and still rising.

GOV. RICK SCOTT, R, Fla.: We have had up to 22 inches of rain in the Panhandle.

GWEN IFILL: That’s roughly a third of Pensacola’s average rainfall for the whole year. And Florida Governor Rick Scott told today of urgent appeals for help.

GOV. RICK SCOTT: We have had flash flooding. We have had about 300 requests for evacuations. We have been sending vehicles there. We have sent 24 high-water vehicles from the National Guard. Fish and Wildlife is there with 31 vehicles, 13 boats. I declared a state of emergency earlier this morning for 26 counties.

GWEN IFILL: The flooding wasn’t limited to the coast. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, well inland, low-lying areas were swamped.

NATALIE HINES: I have never seen this much water in my life. I mean, I know I’m young, but this is a lot of flooding for Alabama.

GWEN IFILL: Some parts of the state saw up to 26 inches of rain in 24 hours alone, more than some hurricanes bring. The slow-moving system also brought powerful thunder and lightning storms overnight, knocking out electricity to thousands.

The heavy rain also reached to the Atlantic. Llewellyn Jones lives in Wilson, North Carolina. Her basement was flooded when a nearby creek overran its banks.

LLEWELLYN JONES: We had about four-and-a-half feet of water in our driveway. It was over the hoods of both our cars, probably, a good three inches — three feet in the house that turned our freezer over, washer, dryer.

GWEN IFILL: From there, the storm system pushed north, dumping as much as five inches of rain across parts of the Mid-Atlantic and on into the Northeast.

For more on the flooding, I spoke a short time ago on the phone with Ashton Hayward, the mayor of Pensacola, Florida.

Welcome, Mayor.

As of 6:00 p.m. Eastern time, we’re hearing that there’s been one reported death so far. How extensive would you say the damage is in Pensacola?

ASHTON HAYWARD, Mayor of Pensacola, Florida: Well, Gwen, you are getting total up in dollars close to the $100 million mark or more. We have been rescuing people late into the evening last night, obviously into the early morning, flooding that we’re not used to, Gwen. As you know we’re used to the hurricanes and not the flooding. And it’s kind of an anomaly for us.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s an anomaly for us to have to talk you by phone in an American city because of power outages all over the city.

How many — how extensive would you say the power outages are?

ASHTON HAYWARD: We have had close to 35,000 people without power in the city and the county. They are restoring power now, but it’s been challenging. But we’re making it happen.

GWEN IFILL: And road closures, are people able to get around at all?

ASHTON HAYWARD: People are getting around now, Gwen. There’s specific areas. One of the highest points in the state of Florida is state Road 90 that washed out. That’s been — Highway 98 has been very challenging.

We had the governor here all day. And there’s specific — specific areas that have been washed out that we’re taking care of right now.

GWEN IFILL: You say the governor has been there all day. What kind of help are you getting so far from the state or from the federal government?

ASHTON HAYWARD: Well, from the state — I received a phone call at 4:28 Central time this morning, and the governor had the National Guard on his way over here bringing vehicles that can get into high water, obviously, the DOT, Department of Transportation, and of course more manpower with the Florida Highway Patrol to assist with us.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have any sense yet, Mr. Mayor, of how many of your residents are displaced as a result of these storms and this flooding?

ASHTON HAYWARD: It’s getting to probably over 1,000, Gwen. We don’t have exact estimates right now. That’s a guesstimate. But it’s probably over 1,000 that are going to be out of their home for days and maybe weeks.

GWEN IFILL: It seems like a lot of rain here, but for you, is this — how abnormal is this amount of rain in such a short period of time?

ASHTON HAYWARD: Well, you are talking about 24 inches, 22 to 24 inches, in less than 24 hours. The storm started about 4:45 Central time and it just continued and continued. And then it sat over Pensacola.

We were hoping it would move due east at 25 miles per hour, but it just hesitated and stopped and just dumped just constantly all night. We were concerned about a tornado. That never landed. And then the rain just continued and that’s when the flooding started happening.

GWEN IFILL: Are the waters now beginning to recede?

ASHTON HAYWARD: They are. They are beginning to recede right now. So, that’s why people are able to get out. We’re advising people to stay off the roads, and people have been listening because they have been done that path of hurricanes. People are all listening, but they are — the waters are receding, thank God.

GWEN IFILL: Mayor Ashton Hayward, we wish you all the best staying dry. Thank you so much for joining us.

ASHTON HAYWARD: Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: A train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire today in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. No one was hurt, but a number of tanker cars lay smoking, with several resting in the James River. The city said some of cars leaked oil, but it was unclear how much. Last July, an oil train exploded in a town in Quebec, Canada, killing 47 people.

On Wall Street today, the Dow Jones industrial average closed at an all-time high after making up losses from earlier in the year. On the day, the Dow gained 45 pints to finish near 16,581. The Nasdaq rose 11 points to close at 4,114 and the S&P 500 added five to finish just short after 1,884.

In Ukraine, there were more signs the government is losing its grip on eastern portions of the country. Pro-Russian gunmen seized the city hall in the city of Horlivka in the Donetsk region, while others consolidated their holds on cities in and around Luhansk.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s acting president conceded authorities have failed to halt the unrest.

OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV, Acting President, Ukraine (through interpreter): Law enforcement agencies, departments of police and security services in these regions are unable to fulfill their duties to protect the citizens. They are helpless in these issues. Furthermore, some of these units assist or are in cooperation with terrorist groups.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, 19 Republican senators introduced legislation calling for broader, tougher sanctions to punish Russia for its interference in Ukraine.

The civil war in South Sudan is on the verge of triggering widespread famine. The United Nations’ top human rights official warned today that more than a million people have fled the violence at the start of the crucial planting season. She said she’s appalled neither of the two warring leaders seems concerned by the looming disaster.

Violence overshadowed Election Day in Iraq as people headed to the polls today to cast ballots in the country’s parliamentary elections. At least five people died in scattered attacks.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News filed this report.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It’s the kind of democracy that Saddam Hussein would have never allowed, but in a country now racked by sectarian violence, Iraq governed for the last eight years by Nouri al-Maliki from the Shia majority, a man who very rarely smiles. He voted early in Baghdad today, an increasingly authoritarian prime minister casting this election as a referendum on his war against terror.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through interpreter): I wish to see a huge turnout. God willing, we will celebrate the success of this election and defeat terrorism and those who bet the election would be postponed.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In parts of Anbar province, there’s no election today, but a full-scale Sunni insurgency. These men so determined to kill Iraqi Shia that even al-Qaida is considered not extreme enough for them. And now the jihadists are trying to advance on the capital. This is the Abu Ghraib district just 20 miles from the center of Baghdad.

In last week, the violence has intensified. This was a suicide bombing which killed 31 at a Shia election rally in Baghdad. In the center of the capital today, cars were banned. Sunni extremists have threatened to kill anyone who votes.

Mr. Maliki’s tough response to the violence will probably see him reelected, though not with a clear majority, a divisive figure in a bitterly divided country.

MAN (through interpreter): The election is a day of change, a day of prosperity and freedom. We hope to get rid of sectarians and those who are corrupt.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Twenty-two million Iraqis are eligible to vote, with the first results expected tomorrow, though forming a government could take far longer than that.

GWEN IFILL: Today’s voting marked the first parliamentary elections since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011.

Back in this country, the Federal Reserve is winding back its economic stimulus program a bit more. Central Bank policy-makers announced additional cuts in their bond-buying efforts today. They said the economy shows signs of rebounding from the effects of a severe winter.

Final figures are in for the federal rescue of General Motors, and it cost the government $11.2 billion. The bailout’s inspector general released the number today. Overall, the government spent about $50 billion to save GM, in return for 60 percent of the automaker’s stock. The Treasury Department sold the last of the shares in December.