PHOENIX – The remnants of Hurricane Norbert pushed into the desert Southwest and swamped Phoenix with record rainfall for a single day, turning freeways into small lakes and sending rescuers scrambling to get drivers out of inundated cars.
At least two people died in the flooding, including a woman who was swept away in her car by rushing water and became trapped against a bridge. In addition, a 76-year-old woman drowned in floodwaters.
The flooding was caused by heavy thunderstorms and showers associated with Norbert after it was downgraded to a tropical depression.
Sections of the two main east-west and north-south freeways through Phoenix – Interstates 10 and 17 – were closed during the morning commute, snarling traffic across the metro area.
Cars and SUVs sat in water up to their hoods on Interstate 10, while dozens of drivers parked on its wide, banked borders to stay clear of the water. A state Department of Public Safety officer used the roof of his SUV to carry three stranded drivers from a flooded area of I-10.
Joseph Friend was driving onto the freeway at 43rd Avenue about 4:15 a.m. when a passing big rig ruined his day.
“A big tidal wave just came up and totally took me out, came over the hood of my truck,” Friend said.
With water filling his vehicle, he climbed out and walked up the freeway embankment to wait it out. His pickup truck was barely visible at the peak of the flooding.
Other drivers were stranded in the median. After the highway was shut down, a woman on top of her car in the median called for help, so Friend waded out and led her to safety.
“She was asking for help and nobody went out there, so I went out there and helped her out,” Friend said. “I was already soaked anyway.”
By late morning, the water on I-10 had receded, allowing trucks to take away several dozen vehicles that had been swamped and stranded.
The National Weather Service recorded 3.29 inches of rain at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, by far the most precipitation ever received in one day in the city. The previous record was 2.91 inches in 1939.
Other Phoenix metro areas received staggering amounts of rain for the desert. Chandler recorded 5.63 inches, while Mesa had 4.41 inches.
Phoenix sometimes receives heavy rain and wind during the summer months, the result of monsoon storms in the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The last six years have produced a highly erratic pattern as the city has gone from huge rainfall one summer to scant precipitation the next, said meteorologist Charlotte Dewey.
For example, Phoenix received 5.7 inches of rain during the summer storm season in 2008, followed by less than an inch the next summer. The 2011 summer was marked by little rain and towering dust clouds that enveloped the city, while this season has produced record rain. Monday’s single-day rainfall totals eclipsed the average total precipitation for the entire summer.
Storms also hit Nevada, where a Native American reservation was evacuated Monday and officials feared water could breach a dam after more than four inches of rain fell on the town of Moapa in a two-hour period.
Erin Neff of the Clark County Regional Flood Control District said authorities were keeping an eye on the Virgin River, which was at 9 feet by midafternoon Monday and floods at 11 feet.
Heavy rain was threatening to breach a dam on the Muddy River, which feeds the already swollen Virgin River. That could send water into homes in Moapa, northeast of Las Vegas.
In Phoenix, the freeways became submerged after pumping stations could not keep up with the downpour, the Department of Transportation said. Sections of Interstates 10 and 17 were closed most of the day.
In Tucson, nearly 2 inches of rain in a short period turned normally dry washes into raging torrents. A woman was found dead after her car was swept about two blocks by water 10 to 15 feet deep then wedged and submerged against a bridge, Tucson Fire Department spokesman Barrett Baker said.
“This is the worst thing in the world for us,” Baker said. “We talk all summer really about the dangers of washes.”
Rescuers with the Northwest Fire District, a Pima County department, needed 30 minutes to reach a man in a car and pull him from the passenger side, which was shielded against the fastest-flowing water.
The rescue was “as close as it gets before we lose somebody,” spokesman Adam Goldberg said.
In Tempe, part of a grocery store roof collapsed because of the rain, but none of the people inside was injured, police Lt. Mike Pooley said.
Numerous street closures were reported in cities across the area.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer declared a state of emergency because of the flooding and told non-essential state workers to stay home.
Scattered electricity outages were reported, with over 10,000 customers losing power.