Fort Lauderdale mops up after historic flooding engulfs city
The water was rising around her car, and Amanda Valentine thought she was going to die. She had just gotten a warning on her phone about flash flooding, and now it was all around her.
“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,’” Valentine said. “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.
Parts of South Florida began cleaning up Thursday after the unprecedented storm that trapped Valentine and other motorists dumped upward of 2 feet (60 centimeters) of rain in a matter of hours, caused widespread flooding, closed a key airport and turned thoroughfares into rivers.
There were no immediate reports of injuries or deaths.
Residents still waded through knee-high water or used canoes and kayaks to navigate the streets Thursday in Fort Lauderdale's Edgewood neighborhood, where window screen installer Dennis Vasquez towed some of his neighbor’s belongings on an inflatable mattress to a car on dry land. He himself lost all of his possessions when water rose chest-high in his house Wednesday night.
“Everything, it’s gone,” he said in Spanish. “But I will replace it.”
The storms that delivered record rain to parts of Broward County this week had water managers scrambling to balance flooding on the two sides of the county.
John Mitnik, chief engineer for the South Florida Water Management District, explained that officials must perform “a balancing act” by relieving flooding in the county’s western portion without “exacerbating” flooding in the eastern part.
Unlike Miami-Dade, flood control gates are located further inland in Broward. That leaves a much larger area to the east at the mercy of tides and higher sea levels.
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.
Fort Lauderdale issued a state of emergency as flooding persisted in parts of the city. Crews worked through the night to attend rescue calls. Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, which closed Wednesday evening, said it would not reopen until 5 a.m. Friday because of debris and flooding.
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.
Airlines were forced to cancel or change flights to and from the airport. Southwest canceled about 50 departures through Friday morning, and the number could grow, a spokeswoman said. The airline is letting customers rebook on flights to and from Miami and Palm Beach at no additional charge, she said.
Frontier Airlines moved two flights from Fort Lauderdale to Miami but canceled about 15 other round trips, a spokeswoman said. Allegiant Air also canceled some flights and rerouted others to the Tampa, Orlando and Punta Gorda areas.
More than 650 flights were canceled at Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, according to FlightAware.
Broward County schools initially canceled classes Thursday, including after-school and extracurricular activities, after water flooded hallways and classrooms at some schools. Officials announced in the evening that schools would remain closed Friday. Service was restored on South Florida’s high-speed commuter rail, Brightline, after it briefly shut down Wednesday evening.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, during a press conference Thursday, urged people to stay off the roads, noting the previous day police and fire rescue departments fielded 900 calls for help.
He told reporters that the city used high clearance buggies and airboats to rescue stranded people whose homes have flooded.
Reunification centers were set up at Holiday Park and the Winn Dixie on southwest 24th Street, according to city officials. The Red Cross set up a staging area to help residents whose homes were flooded, providing them with blankets and coffee.
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.
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 the Sistrunk neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, 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.
In the Edgewood neighborhood, Christopher Alfonso and Tony Mandico, neighbors for 50 years, said their homes are likely total losses.
“That storm ... just poured down on us for hours and hours and hours,” Alfonso said. Pointing to the tightly packed homes with tiny yards, he said, “All this asphalt, concrete, no grass — there was no place for (the water) to go.”
Both said the area never severely flooded until a sanitary sewer system replaced septic tanks 10 years ago, making some streets higher than others and channeling rain onto lower roads.
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.”
Kozin and Frisaro both reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press reporter Kathy McCormack reported from Concord, New Hampshire.
WLRN reporters Gerard Albert III and Jenny Staletovich conTributed to this story.