CBSN

Record rainfall leads to deadly flooding in Arizona

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.

In Tucson, a woman died after her car was swept away by rushing water and became trapped against a bridge.

The flooding was caused by heavy thunderstorms and showers associated with Norbert after it was downgraded to a tropical depression.

Sections of Interstates 10 and 17 in west Phoenix were closed during the morning commute. 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.

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.

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. "

Dan Marries of CBS affiliate KOLD tweeted photos of firefighters rescuing passengers from their cars in Tucson:

Drivers in Phoenix pushed their way through high water on their morning commute near I-1o. Motorist Jim Sampson got stuck on his way to work.

"I just waited inside for the pressure to equalize from the inside to the outside and just opened it and climbed out," said Sampson.

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 2.99 inches of rain by about 7 a.m., breaking the old record of 2.91 inches set in 1933. The rainfall also eclipsed the average total rainfall of 2.71 inches for the entire summer rainy season in Phoenix.

The Arizona Department of Transportation said its pumping stations couldn't keep up with the downfall on freeways.

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.

Elsewhere, dozens of drivers were stuck in rapidly moving water.

Johnjay Van Es of the syndicated radio show Johnjay & Rich was stranded in his BMW at an intersection near his Phoenix office around 4 a.m. Van Es said he didn't see the water in the dark intersection until it was too late.

"I just coasted into the flood," he said.

Van Es was stranded for two hours and did part of his radio show from his car. He was able to crawl from an open window of his swamped car into the waiting truck of co-host Rich Berra.

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.

Flash flood watches remain for mountains and high deserts, but the National Weather Service says the worst of the storms has passed through both Arizona and California.

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.