On a single afternoon last week, parts of downtown Atlanta received more rainfall than many areas experience during the entire month of September.
Nearly 4 inches were recorded Thursday at the Georgia World Congress Center, according to preliminary estimations from the National Weather Service. The rain came down over the course of 90 minutes, flooding parts of Atlanta and inundating the city’s 911 center with calls for help.
Water levels rose quickly along Peachtree Street outside Atlanta’s public safety headquarters, stranding a ride-share driver inside his sedan as it filled with murky water. Luckily for him, an Atlanta police officer and fire captain were nearby.
The rescue, captured on Officer Rayando Bryan’s body camera, showed the officer and fire Capt. Terrance Simon breaking the window of the Chevy Malibu and pulling the man to safety.
Simon said he’s seen his share of flooding in his 20 years with the fire department, but never that widespread and never on the street right outside his office.
“That man’s life was on the line,” said the 46-year-old Simon, who waded into chest-high water to save the ride-share driver from drowning.
Bryan, who was also called to the scene, used his police baton to break the car’s window while Simon pulled him out.
The water was so deep it lifted the sedan off the ground and made it impossible to open the door, both officers said Monday. Another woman riding in the driver’s vehicle managed to get out before the water got too high, authorities said.
In the footage, the first responders can be seen surrounded by trash and floating debris as they work to free the driver of the flooded sedan from the rising floodwater. They eventually guided the man to the safety of a dry police cruiser waiting at the water’s edge.
“He was just worn out and he was overwhelmed,” Simon said of the trapped driver. “We were getting to be overwhelmed as well, because we had been out there for a few minutes and we had water that was well over 4 ½ feet.”
Footage from security cameras outside the public safety center showed just how quickly the streets filled with water as the storm raged. It came rushing in like a river, flooding the parking lot and lifting orange parking barricades. Several city vehicles in the lot were stranded, too.
Both Simon and Bryan said Monday that they simply followed their training and don’t consider themselves heroes. For them, it was another day on the job.
“This is what we do,” said Bryan, who’s been with the Atlanta police department more than 11 years. “As I got closer and heard the bystanders shouting, it was definitely time to work.”
Over the past 30 years, federal data shows Atlanta has averaged about 3.8 inches of rain for the entire month of September. Thursday’s totals in the city’s center amounted to 3.9 inches of rain.
Mayor Andre Dickens said last week he has asked the city’s Watershed Management Department to evaluate Atlanta’s sewer grid.
“These stormwater events are happening more frequently,” he said. “Mayor Shirley Franklin did a good job in investing in our sewer network in the past and it may be time to look at some more.”
In addition to the flooding downtown, neighborhoods to the south and west of the city’s urban core were hit especially hard in the storm. On average, those areas are packed with more concrete, buildings and other impervious surfaces than the rest of the city, plus fewer trees and greenspaces that can help absorb runoff.
About two dozen Clark Atlanta University students were displaced when Thursday’s storms ripped apart walls and damaged rooms at Holmes Hall. Donations to the school’s Student Emergency Fund will be used to assist the affected students.
When heavy rain falls on pavement, it can quickly overwhelm stormwater drainage systems, turning roads and small creeks into rivers, said Marshall Shepherd, the director of UGA’s atmospheric sciences program. Data from a water gage in Proctor Creek to the northwest of downtown shows water levels rose 10 feet in less than an hour as the storm passed through.
The best way to stay safe during flash flooding, experts say, is to avoid driving through standing water.
Staff writers Drew Kann and Vanessa McCray contributed to this article.