(USA TODAY) -- The Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama were swamped by torrential rains and heavy flooding early Wednesday from a severe storm system that has brought death and destruction across the South.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for 26 Florida Panhandle and north Florida counties that have been hard-hit by the storms.

Scott issued the proclamation early Wednesday and mobilized the Florida National Guard to help. Heavy rains started falling over the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, drenching parts of Pensacola with between 15 and 20 inches of rain.

High water forced officials to shut down Interstate 10 at the Alabama-Florida state line, stranding people in their cars. Some drivers simply abandoned their vehicles to walk to safety.

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The heavy rains also wiped out a section of Scenic Highway that runs along the western side of Escambia Bay near Pensacola, Florida. Two vehicles plummeted 40 feet as a 50-yard wide section of the highway collapsed south of Gaberonne, Florida, the Pensacola News Journal reports.

Most of the eastern third of the nation will continue to see heavy rain and the chance of severe thunderstorms and flooding through the rest of today and into the overnight hours.

The Storm Prediction Center forecast a risk of severe thunderstorms Wednesday afternoon and evening from the central Appalachians and Mid-Atlantic across the coastal Southeast to the Florida Panhandle.

"Wednesday has the potential to be the worst day of the outbreak for people in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia," AccuWeather meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said. "Storms that erupt will bring damaging winds, large hail and isolated tornadoes."

Over the past four days, the storms hit especially hard in places such as Arkansas' northern Little Rock suburbs and the Mississippi cities of Louisville and Tupelo. Arkansas, with 15 deaths after a tornado blasted through Sunday, and Mississippi with 12 deaths from Monday's storms, accounted for the brunt of the death toll.

The National Weather Service said that more than 5 inches of rain fell between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday in Pensacola, surpassing the entire total rainfall from Hurricane Ivan in 60 minutes.

In Florida, fire rescue crews weren't able to respond to some calls for help because of road flooding in and around Pensacola, Escambia County spokesman Bill Pearson said.

"It's gotten to the point where we can't send EMS and fire rescue crews out on some 911 calls because they can't get there," Pearson said. "We've had people whose homes are flooding and they've had to climb up to the attic."

Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency for 26 Florida Panhandle and north Florida counties that have been hard-hit by torrential rain.

In Alabama, Baldwin County EMA Director Mitchell Sims told AL.com early Wednesday that "we have historical flooding" throughout the county and that calls for help have been "non-stop" all night.

Sims, who noted that Fairhope, Ala., got 11.5 inches of rain overnight, said reverse 911 calls were going out to people living south of I-10. "We're advising people not to travel," he said.

Downtown sections of Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola were hit by severe flooding as the strong storm cell dumped more than a foot of rain on the region. Heavy rains also opened up a sinkhole in Mobile, swallowing a truck.

Escambia county, on the far western tip of the Florida Panhandle, declared a state of emergency and ordered people to stay off the roadways.

One person was reported to have drowned in Cantonment, Florida, the Pensacola News Journal reports.

The Florida National Guard dispatched high-wheeled vehicles into the hardest hit areas and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staffed two boats with officers who made medical rescues and helped pull stranded residents to safety.

Even the huge Pensacola Naval Air Station was closed Wednesday morning except for essential personnel.

At the Scenic Hills North housing development near Pensacola, one resident, Jill Hubbs, said swirling waters had swept cars into a creek at the entrance, the News Journal reports.

"A teenage driver yelled for help and the car flipped on its side," Hubbs said via Facebook. "Thanks to my nephew, Jonathan, and brother-in-law, Bob, who tied extension cords together, the teenager, who was hanging onto a tree, is safe. But another car is trapped with two people inside and the water is rushing like the rapids. There is a fire truck here, but they can't reach the car, which has water up to the middle of the doors."

Contributing: Associated Press

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