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Miami bails out after floods take city by storm
MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- A major storm that has dumped about 20 inches of rain in the past two days on South Florida left much of Miami-Dade County flooded Wednesday -- in some places up to four feet deep -- and forced residents to struggle through river-like streets to find higher ground.
The rain has stopped, leaving Miami streets and parking lots looking more like lakes. City workers passed out sandbags to residents and used water pumps in an attempt to reduce flooding in the streets.
A police spokesman in Miami Beach reported one flood-related death. He said a man fell to his death while trying to unclog a roof drain on top of a large building.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon that he has declared a state of emergency for the county on a state level and has asked the Clinton administration to make the declaration on a federal level.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas on Tuesday night had declared a state of emergency that he said will last for the next seven days -- or until it is canceled. He said that hundreds of people were unable to make it home from work Tuesday night because their cars were filled with water.
Rain from the low pressure system was trailing what was Hurricane Keith. The storm developed over Cuba, then gathered strength and moisture as it moved across the Florida Straits on Tuesday.
'Best bet' is to stay home
Penelas urged residents that "the best bet is to play it safe and stay home" on Wednesday while the county assesses damage. He cautioned parents to closely watch their children because playing in floodwaters could be unsafe.
Penelas described the flooding as "worse than what we experienced last year with Hurricane Irene in that the water has come in a much shorter period of time."
In October 1999, Hurricane Irene dumped up to 18 inches of rain and caused millions of dollars in damage.
Residents used canoes and inflatable rafts to get around and slogged through water, sometimes up to their waists, to reach higher ground. "Hundreds, if not thousands of vehicles," Penelas said, were stranded throughout Miami-Dade County in streets that resembled canals.
Local utility Florida Power and Light Co. said it had 65,000 customers without power at one point. By Wednesday morning this number was down to 27,000, FPL spokesman Bill Swank said, adding 1,500 FPL and contract workers were out restoring power.
"We are continuing to be hampered in the heavily flooded areas. Until the waters recede, we can't safely make repairs," he said.
Water rose so high near canals in Opa-locka that catfish were carried into some first-floor apartments.
Water rushed inside the home of Virginia Pacheco when she opened her door in unincorporated west Miami-Dade.
"There are probably fish, snakes out there," she said. "You could go fishing."
A tornado touched down in Hialeah and tore the roof off a fire station while it was being used as a voting site for Tuesday's elections. No one was injured. Another was spotted near Miami's Metrozoo but no damage was reported.
Miami International Airport never officially closed, but numerous flights were canceled or rerouted, said airport spokesman Marc Henderson.
The rainstorm was so bad that President Bill Clinton was unable to watch the beginning of Tuesday night's long-anticipated debate between Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Al Gore and GOP candidate Texas Gov. George W. Bush. The cable TV went out at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, where he was staying, and he was forced to leave the hotel to watch the debate elsewhere.
Schools closed, shelters opened
All Miami-Dade County public schools were closed, affecting 360,000 students, as well as most private schools. All nonessential county employees were being asked to stay home. Penelas said Wednesday afternoon that a decision had not been made whether schools will be closed on Thursday, but added he had seen some flooded schools that definitely would not be ready to open by then.
The Emergency Operation Center went to a level two status Wednesday morning, and a call center was open to provide information to residents.
The county opened two shelters -- one in Sweetwater that currently had 19 people staying there and the other in Carol City Senior High School.
The mayor has announced a prohibition on price gouging, meaning businesses cannot overcharge for services because of the flood. Towing services and gasoline prices will remain the same, he said.
Strengthening storm system soaks southern Florida