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It Happened Here 6/28/12

Deluges Through the Years
by Jessica Forbes

Should Pensacolians forget we live in the subtropics, the city periodically receives massive amounts of rain not associated with hurricanes to remind us. Several episodes of non hurricane-related tropical weather have caused flooding in the city since rainfall amounts were first recorded here in 1870. Since then, Pensacola has experienced several episodes that nearly broke the October 1934 record for 24-hour rainfall, causing floods, fires, power outages and other problems.

Anyone who was in town on June 9 of this year experienced the second rainiest day recorded in Pensacola’s history. Pensacola International Airport recorded 13.13 inches on that Saturday, which fell short of the 15.29 inches of rainfall the city received on October 5, 1934.

The 1934 episode broke the previous record set in June 1887, which was 10 inches of rain in 24 hours. Flooding damaged roads, bridges, and other structures, and building debris floated through streets that had the “appearance of rivers.” The primary inconveniences reported were disruption to the streetcar lines and lumber shipments.

Transportation had changed by 1934, when damage to roads and stranded automobiles were the greatest hindrance to business as usual in Pensacola. In 1934, newspapers reported that 17.05 inches of rain fell in a 24-hour period (the official number was adjusted to 15.29 inches). Western parts of the county were flooded, and up to eight feet of standing water was reported on Cervantes Street between A and E streets, and at the intersection of Coyle and Main streets.

Several residents were evacuated from their homes during the 1934 storm. One woman stranded by the floodwaters gave birth during evacuation efforts. Police hoisted and secured the beds of two bedridden residents, too ill to transport, over floodwaters in their homes until waters receded. Dogs at a canine hospital on North Palafox Street were successfully evacuated as waters rose in that area.

The American Legion and area churches provided shelter for residents displaced from their homes due to flooding. Multiple roads were closed, and residents were asked to stay home on Saturday as street repairs began immediately. Children reportedly swam in the floodwaters and police ran off several women donning “scanty bathing suits” at Wright and Guillemard streets. Waters began receding on Saturday afternoon, nearly 12 hours after the rain subsided.

The 1934 rainfall was a Depression-era emergency, and brought out the newly formed Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), a New Deal program, to assist. Police used FERA trucks to tow skiffs from Palafox Wharf to flooded areas. Several hundred FERA workers helped repair streets, highways, and bridges in the weeks after the storm. The Works Progress Administration took over FERA’s responsibilities in 1935.
Another severe flood occurred during a near record-breaking day of rainfall in March 1979. Pensacola received between 11 and 13 inches of rain on March 4, 1979, overwhelming drainage systems. Many of the same areas that flooded this June including downtown, Brent Lane, and several spots in West Pensacola were the most affected. Aragon Courts flooded, with water nearly covering speed limit signs in that neighborhood, and 65 major fires were reported throughout the city. The 1979 storm caused an estimated $10 million in damage in Escambia County.

Lesser storms have caused minor flooding in certain locations, including the area surrounding Cordova Mall, Airport Boulevard, and the airport itself. Portions of Scenic Highway have washed out with less rain as well.

The upside is, response and drainage seem to have improved over time. Brent Lane and several other roadways drained in much less than 12 hours recently, as did Downtown. If Pensacola’s flood history demonstrates anything, it is to heed the advice of emergency management officials when heavy rains are expected because flood patterns, like history, certainly repeat themselves.

Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her at Music Box Pensacola.