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Record Rain in South Florida Shuts Airport for 3 Hours

The rare burst of storms near daybreak Monday flooded roads, submerged cars, stranded drivers and closed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for about three hours. Over 7 inches of rain fell in a few hours.

by Doug Phillips and Eileen Kelley, Sun Sentinel / December 24, 2019
A flooded NE 7 St. in Hallandale, Fla., after a night of heavy rain. Susan Stocker /South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS

(TNS) — South Florida was swamped by heavy rains overnight that flooded streets and highways, stranded cars and closed the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Heavy rains Monday pulverized an almost 80-year-old record, dropping more than 7 inches of rain in a few hours and topping the record by nearly 5 1/2 inches.

The rare burst of storms around daybreak Monday flooded roads, submerged cars, stranded drivers and closed Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport for about three hours.

Hardest hit were portions of Dania Beach, Hollywood and Hallandale Beach, where a National Weather Service observer noted unofficial rainfall of nearly 13 inches. Though most main roads were passable by midmorning, ankle- to waist-high water persisted in some neighborhoods into Monday afternoon.

Emergency dispatchers for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office took hundreds of flood-related calls, said Sgt. Don Pritchard. Hallandale Beach received 86 weather related calls for service. Twenty-three people called because they were stranded in submerged vehicles.

The Hallandale Beach Police Department was working with towing companies to remove cars on the roads as well as to reach those stranded in their cars. Several traffic engineers were out working to repair traffic signals.

No one was reported to be hurt, but motorists and homeowners across the region reported water damage.

The storms erupted after a low pressure system formed in the Gulf of Mexico and slowly moved north, causing multiple storms to blanket the state.

Florida often gets storms when cold fronts march across portions of the country, but the amount of rain — 7.13 inches at 6 p.m. EST Monday at Fort Lauderdale’s airport — is uncommon, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Chuck Caracozza.

Normal rainfall at the airport is 2.46 inches for the entire month of December. This year, rainfall totaled 9.39 inches by 6 p.m. Monday.

The previous record for the airport on Dec. 23 was 1.57 inches in 1940.

The National Weather Service reported 8.8 inches of rain in Hollywood but just over 3 inches at Miami International Airport and just under 2 inches at Palm Beach International Airport. Neither airport experienced significant travel delays, but Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood reported 123 flights delayed and six canceled at about 8 a.m.

Greg Meyer has been with the Broward County Aviation Department for 13 years and said he has never seen anything like it.

The airport has closed in preparation of hurricanes, but the last time it even came close because of rain was May 23, 2003.

Even then — in the midst of a 100-year flood event — only two of the three runways were closed down due to flooding.

“Today was worse,” Meyer said.

Some 1.8 million travelers are expected to pass through the airport from Dec. 18 through Jan. 2. About 126,000 people were expected to pass through on Monday.

Flooding affected at least 5% of the 1,200 lane miles of roads that Broward County owns or maintains, said Anh Ton, the county’s director of highway and bridge maintenance.

Tons said the heavy rain overwhelmed the drainage system at several locations, including Northwest 27th Avenue near Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and Riverland Road in Fort Lauderdale and Andrews Avenue near Broward Boulevard, also in Fort Lauderdale.

“We’ve had 7 inches before, but that is spread out,” Ton said.

County roads, Ton said, have storm inlets that collect water. The water then travels through a system of storm drains to a treatment area before it empties into lakes or the Intracoastal Waterway. When there is so much water at once, the collection system gets overwhelmed.

That’s exactly what happened Monday.

Crews used pumps and vacuum trucks to lower the water level on the roads, “allowing for safe travel without closing any roads,” Ton said.

By midday, Ton said he was not aware of any homes being flooded along county roads.

Fort Lauderdale’s airport tweeted about 4 a.m. that the facility was closed because of severe rain and flash flooding. Well before the call to close the airport, social media was lighting up with posts about the conditions.

“The flooding is insane,” someone heading there for a 2 a.m. pickup wrote. “Cars are stalled out and people are driving on sidewalks.”

Flights were resuming about 6:30 a.m., but traffic heading to the airport was extremely heavy, and some airport services, such as shuttle buses, were continually disrupted, officials said.

In Terminal 2, Nikki Gavallas waited in a long line at the counter for Delta Airlines with her husband and two daughters, 3 years old and 14 months.

“Our adventure this morning started really early. We were supposed to have a 7:30 flight to Atlanta that got delayed to 8:30 and we’ve been stuck in traffic trying to get to the airport,” Gavallas said, while trying to take it all in stride.

“But it’s OK, our kids are being great,” she said.

By early Monday, most of the worst weather had moved east, off the coast.

Tuesday will be mostly sunny and cool, with highs in the mid-70s.

Wednesday, Christmas Day, is forecast to be pleasant with mostly sunny skies, highs in the upper 70s and winds from the north at about 5 to 10 mph.


(Staff photographer Joe Cavaretta contributed to this report.)



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