Two Deaths Blamed on Miami Rainstorms

Torrential downpours flooded southeastern Florida with up to 18 inches of rain today, closing schools and businesses, stranding thousands of motorists in waist-high water and leaving catfish swimming in first-floor apartments.

A man fell to his death today while trying to patch a leaking roof in Miami Beach.

Most of the rain had stopped by midday, but three counties remained under a flood watch and Miami residents were urged to stay home until things dried out. Near Fort Myers, new flood warnings were issued for parts of Lee County, where 6 to 7 inches of rain fell in three hours today and 3 to 5 inches more were expected.

“All we need is a canoe and some fishing rods,” said Roy D’Erminio. He said his overflowing swimming pool “looks like Walden Pond.”

Thousands Lose Power Last year, Hurricane Irene caused millions of dollars in flood damage when it dumped 18 inches of rain on the area. This time, there was no hurricane—just a moisture-packed storm that arrived from offshore Monday with 3 inches of rain per hour.

“This was a total surprise,” said Magdalena Martinez of Miami. “It just wasn’t normal.”

The storm flooded homes and turned streets into rivers. Catfish were reported swimming in some apartments in Opa-locka.

Water rushed inside the Miami-area home of Virginia Pacheco when she opened her door. “There are probably fish, snakes out there,” she said.

A tornado tore the roof off a Hialeah fire station, but no one was injured.

Tens of thousands of people lost power.

“Our crews can’t move in until the waters recede and until they can safely use their equipment,” said Bill Swank, a spokesman for Florida Power and Light who estimated that about 27,000 homes and businesses were without power. He said it could take two to three days to restore.

Cancelled Classes, Health Warnings Classes for the 360,000 students in Miami-Dade County public schools were canceled today, and 15 water-damaged schools will be unable to open Thursday when classes resume.

In the low-lying suburbs of Miami Springs and Sweetwater, where there was more than 2 feet of standing water, residents took to canoes and aluminum boats to get around.

The Miami-Dade County Health Department issued warnings that the water could be contaminated by sewer systems and septic tanks. It advised people with private wells to boil their drinking water.

“My house stinks. Both the toilets are flooded,” said Rosa Walstron, who was among about 150 people who went to a Sweetwater shelter. “I only brought two fruits and the clothes on my back,” she said, holding an apple and a banana.

“I’ve lost everything,” Amelia Wybern, 38, told Gov. Jeb Bush, who flew to Miami today and toured the washed out communities. As he drove through her Sweetwater neighborhood, water splashed up to the doors of his National guard Humvee.

Disaster Declaration Imminent? Bush said he had asked President Clinton for federal funds to help businesses and residents recover, and White House spokesman Steve Boyd said Clinton would sign the disaster declaration.

The president was in Coral Gables on a fund-raising tour and missed part of Tuesday night’s debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush when the storm interfered with cable TV service.

Miami International Airport never officially closed, but numerous flights were canceled or rerouted. Service was expected to return to normal by late today.

The storm dumped at least 11 inches of rain on Miami-Dade County and the airport got 15.3 inches in 36 hours, the National Weather Service said. Farther up the coast, Broward County received more than 8 inches.

Florida’s record for the greatest amount of rainfall in a 24-hour period is 38.7 inches which fell on Yankeetown in 1950.