PENSACOLA, Fla. -- His city stunned and saturated by floodwaters, Craig Hindsman, a pastor at Pensacola's Marcus Pointe Baptist Church, suddenly became an amateur rescuer Wednesday.
With an office at the church as a makeshift command center, Mr. Hindsman and two other pastors set out in a pair of trucks to escort people to safety. But the waters kept rising, the latest salvo of severe weather throughout the South and Midwest that killed at least 38 people across eight states this week.
"We got about four blocks away from the church, and the water was way too deep, above our chests," Mr. Hindsman recounted Wednesday.
They turned back and got a boat, ultimately rescuing at least 14 families in an operation that included pulling residents from balconies and rooftops, even among homes where electricity was flowing.
"I was mainly worried about touching a live wire and getting electrocuted," said Mr. Hindsman, whose team rescued a mother and her two children, as well as a 90-year-old woman. "But when times get tough, you help your neighbor."
The overwhelming rains that propelled the church leaders into action struck the Florida Panhandle and parts of Alabama on Tuesday night and into Wednesday, with some areas recording nearly 2 feet of precipitation. The deluge surprised authorities, who, with many roads impassable and floodwaters rising, were also forced to stage rescues.
"We would send a team out on a mission for one person, and they would come back with 10 people," said Mitchell Sims, emergency management director in Baldwin County, Ala., where the first rescues began about 10 p.m. Tuesday and continued until midmorning Wednesday.
Florida officials said they rescued hundreds of people in the state, where one woman died after her vehicle became submerged in Escambia County.
The dousing assault came after days of severe weather elsewhere in the South.
Violent tornadoes leveled small towns, including Louisville, Miss., where the National Weather Service said a storm packing winds as high as 185 mph left stretches of the city decimated.
Along with Florida, officials in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee have reported fatalities from the week's storms.
Although forecasters and emergency officials in the South had braced for another round of severe weather Tuesday and Wednesday, few people predicted the onslaught along the coast.
"In my mind, the expectation would have been for severe thunderstorms and potential tornado concerns, not the deluge of rain that we've received," said Escambia County spokesman Bill Pearson. "I don't think that was really in the forecast in any way, shape or form."
But what did happen was unusual, and people spent Wednesday comparing the conditions an unnamed spring storm wrought to a summertime hurricane.
In Alabama, the Fish River crested at 23.18 feet, slightly higher than the record set during Hurricane Danny in July 1997.
The river reaches flood stage at 11 feet.
The rain fell quickly: Government meteorologists said a weather station recorded almost 5.7 inches in an hour at the Pensacola Regional Airport, which forecasters said was a rate seen about once every 200 years.
"It's unbelievable," said barber Tony Riha, who has lived in Pensacola for more than 60 years. "Water is an incredible force of nature. I've never had this much damage. I've never seen anything like it."
Officials were still trying to determine the extent of the destruction, but Mr. Pearson said the Escambia County authorities anticipated an extensive recovery process. "We definitely have roads that are impassable and will take a significant amount of time and cost to repair," said the county spokesman, who said engineers hoped to begin their assessments today.