Terrified drivers climbed out of swamped cars and muddy floodwater flowed through neighborhoods after a stalled weather front drenched Alabama for hours, leaving entire communities under water Thursday and killing at least four people.
Dozens of people had to be rescued Wednesday night in central Alabama, where the National Weather Service said as much as 13 inches (33 centimeters) of rain fell, and a south Alabama town temporarily lost its main grocery store when a creek came through the doors of the Piggly Wiggly. Near the coast, heavy rains caused sewage to bubble out of underground pipes.
Metro Birmingham remained under a flash flood watch much of the day until storms moved into Georgia. Another 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of rain could fall there and in western South Carolina by nightfall, the weather service said, and the Florida Panhandle could get doused.
A 4-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman died in separate incidents when floods carried away vehicles in northeast Alabama, said Marshall County Coroner Cody Nugent. Searchers found the bodies of a boyfriend and girlfriend, both 23, inside a car that was swept away by a swollen stream in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, said Shelby County Coroner Lina Evans.
"Normally it's just a trickle. It was raging," she said. Evans identified the victims as Hoover residents Latin Marie Hill and Myles Jared Butler.
The deluge produced wild scenes on social media: floodwaters flowing between Christmas trees inside a Lowe's store in Hoover, refrigerator bins full of brown water in a home and dozens of cars with their headlights submerged. Rescue crews helped motorists escape as low visibility and standing water made travel life-threatening in some areas.
Some of the worst flooding happened in Pelham, outside Birmingham, where 82 people were rescued from homes and more than 15 were pulled from vehicles after creeks and streams overflowed, the Pelham Fire Department said early Thursday. More than 100 rescuers with 16 boats were involved, the statement said.
"Water was coming in the car so fast I had to bail out the window," said Jill Caskey, who watched Thursday morning as a tow truck hauled away her sport utility vehicle from a low-lying parking lot in Pelham. The car stalled as she tried to navigate floodwaters during the deluge.
A police officer helped her to high ground, and Caskey's husband picked her up on a roadside. But it took them three hours to travel a few miles home because of flooded roads.
Caskey has heard the weather safety mantra of "turn around, don't drown," but said "it really happened so fast I didn't have time to think about it."
The Alabama deluge came about seven weeks after flooding killed more than a dozen people in Tennessee. Such floods may be more common in the future because of global warming, scientists say.
Federal research has found that man-made climate change doubles the chances of the types of heavy rains that swamped Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with 26 inches (66 centimeters) of rain in 2016, killing a dozen people and damaging 150,000 homes.
In south Alabama near the Florida line, water covered streets in the flood-prone Escambia County towns of Brewton and East Brewton, inundating a shopping center and sending as much as 3 feet (1 meter) of water into the Piggly Wiggly. Two schools had to cancel classes, said Escambia Sheriff Heath Jackson.
To the south, in Baldwin County, as much as 250,000 gallons (946,000 liters) of waste water overflowed from sewage systems along Mobile Bay, officials said.
In Georgia, the National Weather Service said as many as 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rain fell in a crescent-shaped area from Columbus to Macon and then northeast toward Athens, Gainesville and South Carolina.
On Wednesday, news outlets reported rising waters forced people to evacuate from a motel in Macon, Georgia, after ground floor rooms flooded. In adjoining Jones County, schools canceled classes Thursday as floodwaters submerged some roads. Rising waters on the Ocmulgee River led Jones County deputies to rescue people trapped in their home Wednesday.
Flood warnings were posted along rivers in six states, and gates were opened at the dam on Lake Sinclair in central Georgia to reduce water levels.
Rains should end by late Thursday in Alabama as storms move eastward. Flash flood warnings were in effect through Friday along the weather front, stretching from the Florida Panhandle through northern Georgia and mountainous regions of easter Tennessee and the western Carolinas.
Back in Pelham, Michael Halbert waded through his neighborhood to a townhome filled with more than 40 inches (102 centimeters) of water. He tried to get items off the floor, but still lost some of his belongings, and his Jeep was filled with water outside.
"Flood insurance is going to have fun," he said.