PHOENIX – Joseph Friend was driving his blue Chevrolet S-10 pickup onto Interstate 10 early Monday when a huge wave of flood water kicked up by a big rig truck pushed his truck off the highway.
The 47-year-old Phoenix man was among more than two dozen motorists whose vehicles were swamped and left submerged in up to 4 feet of water following record-breaking rainfall that hit Phoenix on Monday.
They were the lucky ones: At least two people died when floodwaters swept away their vehicles in southern Arizona.
A woman died after her car was swept away and became trapped against a bridge in Tucson, and a 76-year-old woman drowned when her husband tried to drive across a flooded wash in Pinal County south of Phoenix.
The rain was caused by the remnants of Hurricane Norbert pushing into the desert Southwest. Phoenix recorded record rainfall for a single day, turning freeways into small lakes and sending rescuers scrambling to get drivers out of inundated cars.
Parts of Nevada also saw downpours, and 190 people from an Indian reservation about 50 miles northeast of Last Vegas was evacuated after more than 4 inches of rain fell on the rural, sparsely populated community of Moapa, pushing the Virgin River to near-flood stage.
Some homes have been damaged in flooding, which was expected to continue posing a threat overnight. It’s unclear how many homes were damaged or remained at risk.
Closures on Interstate 15, the main route from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City, backed up drivers, damaged the roadway and washed away some vehicles, though no serious injuries have been reported.
Strong thunderstorms also wreaked havoc in Southern California’s deserts. Rescue crews answered more than 40 flood-related calls about stranded cars during the Monday morning commute in the La Quinta and Indian Wells areas near Palm Springs, Riverside County fire spokeswoman Jody Hagemann said. Numerous cars got stuck in high water on roads north and south of Interstate 10 in Coachella Valley, said Mike Radford, public information officer for the Indio CHP office.
Also in suburban Phoenix, crews in Mesa were trying to keep floodwaters away from around 125 homes after retention basins and channels along the U.S. 60 freeway reached or exceeded capacity, allowing water to flow into a handful of neighborhoods.
Crews worked into the night to disconnect power to submerged transformers, provide sandbags to threatened homes, and pump water from affected areas. A temporary shelter was being set up at a recreation center. City officials said any evacuations would be voluntary, however.
Norbert’s effects will likely hang around through Tuesday evening, National Weather Service meteorologist Charlotte Dewey said.
“It looks like things could still be active tomorrow, but I don’t think we’re going to see the rainfall amounts we saw today,” she said Monday evening. “I think by tomorrow evening, the threat of heavy rainfall will be gone.”
But she warned that with so much rain falling across the region, any additional precipitation could quickly cause new flooding because the ground is already saturated.
Sections of the two main north-south and east-west freeways through Phoenix – Interstates 10 and 17 – were closed during the Monday morning commute, snarling traffic all across the metro area.
Cars and SUVs sat in water up to their hoods on the freeway, while dozens of motorists 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 motorists from a flooded area of I-10.
Friend was headed to his job at a vending machine manufacturing company at about 4:15 a.m. when his truck was overcome.
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 and bright sunshine emerged, 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 airport, by far the most precipitation the city has ever received in one day. The previous record for one-day rainfall was 2.91 inches in 1939.
Other Phoenix metro areas received staggering amounts of rain for the desert region. 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 coming north from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The last six years have produced a highly erratic pattern as Phoenix 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.
The freeways became submerged Monday 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. The 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.