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Flooding Devastates Florida With Heaviest Rains In 130 Years

There’s widespread devastation in Pensacola, Florida, as unprecedented flooding and a deadly explosion follow the heaviest rainfall in a single day since the late 1800s.

Storms have also pummeled parts of Tennessee and Mississippi, but the torrential rains were heaviest in Florida, where people were rescued off rooftops and roads were cut in pieces, or entirely wiped out.

In some areas, two feet of rain fell in a single 24-hour period.

An apparent gas explosion at a jail in Pensacola killed two inmates and injured as many as 150 others. The fire marshal will determine if the flooding and explosion are related.

Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer checks in with Tom Ninestine, an editor at the Pensacola News Journal, who toured the devastated region by helicopter.

Interview Highlights: Tom Ninestine

On what he saw when flying over Pensacola

“It was heartbreaking to see homes, cars, just submerged by water. I was here for Hurricane Ivan, and the water damage here far exceeds that. There are estimates as much as 26 inches of rain fell on Santa Rosa County, where I live, and just about the same in Escambia County, where Pensacola is located. Today, it’s still overcast. We’re expecting as much as an inch to an inch and a half of rain, which will only add to the misery, but we’re slowly mopping up. The Salvation Army is out, hitting the hardest hit areas with food. To help those that have been displaced, shelters are open. County officials have started the assessment of damage. Governor Rick Scott was here first thing yesterday to provide help from the National Guard. Our senator and our congressman, Jeff Miller, are seeking help from FEMA. We’re gonna get out of this.”

On infrastructure damage from the rain

“Scenic Highway… is one of the most traveled in Pensacola. It’s in northwest bound Escambia Bay. And that really was an eye-opener for us. We’ve cancelled schools today and likely tomorrow to make sure that the roads are all stable. The last thing we need we need is a school bus full of children on a road that’s not quite stable. Some of the bridges are being checked out. But most of the major roads have been affected.”

On the explosion aftermath at the Escambia County Jail

“There are two confirmed dead. We believe they are inmates. There are at least three people continue to be missing. The 150 people have been taken to various hospitals. I spoke with one hospital spokesman, and he said that most of them have been released — probably smoke inhalation and minor injuries — but right now, the identities of the two that were killed haven’t been released. Right now, it looks like it’s an expected gas explosion that may caused this, and what happens is, when the ground starts to wash away, those pipes start to become vulnerable.”

Guest

    • Tom Ninestine, editor for the Pensacola News Journal. He tweets @tninestinepnj.

Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. And coming up, the Federal Reserve continues to pull back on its economic stimulus, but is it pulling back too much too soon?

PFEIFFER: But first...

(SOUNDBITE OF STORM)

PFEIFFER: That's the sound of wind and water in Pensacola, Florida, a city devastated by widespread flooding and a deadly explosion. That follows the heaviest rainfall in a single day there since the late 1800s. Storms have also pummeled parts of Tennessee and Mississippi, but the torrential rains were heaviest in Florida. People there were rescued off rooftops, and roads were cut into pieces or entirely wiped out. Here's resident Elizabeth Peden(ph), who narrowly escaped the floodwaters in Pensacola.

ELIZABETH PEDEN: Frightened is not the word. I thought I was going to drown because the water was coming in the car, and I thought if I stay in the car with the windows up, I'm going to drown.

PFEIFFER: In some areas, two feet of rain fell in a 24-hour period. Tom Ninestine is an editor with the Pensacola News Journal, and he had an opportunity to tour that devastated region by helicopter. Tom, welcome. And would you describe for us what you saw as you flew over the flooded areas?

TOM NINESTINE: Thank you for having me, Sacha. Yes, it was just, it was heartbreaking to see homes, cars just submerged by water. I was here for Hurricane Ivan, and the water damage here far exceeds that. There are estimates as much as 26 inches of rain fell on Santa Rosa County, where I live, and just about the same in Escambia County, where Pensacola is located.

Today, it's still overcast. We're expecting as much as an inch to an inch and a half of rain, which will only add to the misery, but we're slowly mopping up. The Salvation Army is out, hitting the hardest hit areas with food. To help those that have been displaced, shelters are open. County officials have started the assessment of damage.

Governor Rick Scott was here first thing yesterday to provide help from the National Guard. Our senators, and our congressman, Jeff Miller, are seeking help from FEMA. We're going to get out of this.

PFEIFFER: There's a stunning photo circulating of a highway down there just half-collapsed. It's just gone. Where are you seeing the worst damage and in terms of what infrastructure has sustained the worst damage?

NINESTINE: Well, Scenic Highway is the highway you're referencing, and it is one of the most traveled in Pensacola. It's in north and west bound, Escambia Bay. And that really was an eye-opener for us. We're cancelled schools today and likely tomorrow to make sure that the roads are all stable.

The last thing we need we need is a school bus full of children on a road that's not quite stable. Some of the bridges are being checked out. But it's - most of the major roads have been affected.

PFEIFFER: You mentioned Escambia Bay. In another major story happening in your city is the explosion at the Escambia County Jail. Now early reports are that two people are dead, and up to 150 are injured. What do we know about that explosion and whether it is somehow tied to the flooding?

NINESTINE: We have updated the story just recently on PNJ.com. And there are two confirmed dead. We believe that they are inmates. There are at least three people who continue to be missing. The 150 people have been taken to various hospitals.

I spoke with one hospital spokesman, and he said that most of them have been released, probably, you know, smoke inhalation and minor injuries, but right now, the identities of the two that were killed haven't been released. Right now, it looks like it's an expected gas explosion that may caused this, and what happens is when the ground starts to wash away, those pipes start to become vulnerable.

PFEIFFER: That's Tom Ninestine, he's an editor at the Pensacola News Journal. Tom, be safe, and thanks for talking with us.

NINESTINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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