Heavy rains flood Fla. homes; man drowns in Gulf

Flood warnings stretched along the Gulf Coast from Florida's Panhandle into Mississippi as locally heavy rain Monday threatened a repeat of weekend downpours and storms that damaged homes, blacked out a jail and spun off at least one tornado in Alabama.

A 23-year-old Mississippi man drowned off Florida's Pensacola Beach and more than a dozen other swimmers were ordered out of rough surf amid heavy rain that caused widespread flooding over the weekend, officials said. The Pensacola News Journal (http://on.pnj.com/KvdzhV) said the man's name has not been released.

The newspaper also reported the storms forced the evacuation of a 200-unit apartment complex in Pensacola. Many residents found severe flood damage when they returned Sunday afternoon. Officials say electric power could be restored at the complex Monday.

The National Weather Service said rip tides from the storms were a danger along the coast and locally heavy rain could cause more flooding through Monday afternoon, although the intensity of the downpours was abating.

A tornado connected with the storm system also uprooted trees and destroyed chicken houses Sunday in southeastern Alabama, where an emergency official said a few homes were damaged but no injuries were reported.

"I actually saw it myself coming out of our church door — my first tornado I have ever witnessed," said Margaret Mixon, emergency management director for rural Geneva County.

More than 600 inmates at the Escambia County Jail in Florida were without power and air conditioning after the rains left more than 5 feet of water in the bottom floor, which also houses the laundry and kitchen facilities.

Extra deputies were brought in to beef up security, and generators powered lights outside the facility to shine into the jail. Officials worked Monday to pump out the excess water and restore power.

"The whole electrical system is underwater. It's going to be extensive damage," said Sgt. Mike Ward.

The parking lot of the sheriff's office was completely flooded, leaving some patrol cars and other fleet vehicles with water up to the hood. Some homes and businesses also had several feet of water inside, Ward said. Authorities estimated $3 million to $4 million in damages at the sheriff's facilities.

Sunday's rain could have been worse, coming on top of Saturday's record rainfall. After getting more than 13 inches on Saturday, Pensacola only saw another 1.92 inches of rain Sunday. Mobile had 5.79 inches on Saturday and another 2.79 inches Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

Forecasters originally feared that another 4 to 8 inches would fall Sunday on the coast, but the storm system pulled more of the precipitation farther inland, meteorologist Eric Esbensen said.

"That was a lifesaver," Esbensen said. "We couldn't handle another day of that."

More than 100 residents spent the night in three Red Cross shelters in Escambia County on Saturday night, including residents from a 50-unit apartment. Navy officials also set up housing for residents of a 22-home subdivision evacuated because of flooding, according to Red Cross officials.

It was difficult to assess the damage Sunday because many roads in Escambia County were still flooded. Emergency officials planned a more thorough inspection Monday after the waters recede.

Escambia officials asked residents to stay home and not travel as more rainfall was expected Sunday night. Much of the water had receded in nearby Santa Rosa County, but the area was under a flood warning.

About 40 homes had some level of flooding around the city of Gulf Breeze, where heavy rains left about 4 feet of water. Fire rescue officials were still assessing the extent of the damage Sunday. One person was rescued from a car stranded in the high waters. Three swimmers were taken to the hospital Saturday night after getting caught in rough waters, Santa Rosa County spokeswoman Joy Tsubooka said.

"I have never seen rain like that before ... yesterday it was torrential for extended periods of time, like two or three hours it didn't let up at all," she said.

A Santa Rosa Sheriff's deputy also reported large amounts of debris after a tornado touched down near a flea market, but there was no major damage to buildings.