Hurricane Sally, after moving at a walking pace over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, gathered strength overnight before making landfall Wednesday near Gulf Shores, Alabama, shortly before 5 a.m. Central time as a Category 2 hurricane.
The languid pace and lurching path of Sally, which was moving at just 2 mph as it intensified into a storm with sustained 105 mph winds, has increased the threat of catastrophic flooding.
As much as 30 inches of rain could fall in an area stretching from the Florida Panhandle to Mississippi, compounding a storm surge of 4 to 6 feet around Dauphin Island off the Alabama coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters also warned of life-threatening flash floods.
More than 150,000 people lost power overnight, and local officials warned residents that flooding would most likely grow more severe throughout the day.
“This is a LIFE-THREATENING SITUATION. SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!!,” the National Weather Service office in Mobile, Alabama, warned in a tweet.
The weather service reposted videos from residents, and local media outlets showing howling winds, trees ripped from their roots, flooded roadways, boats ripped from their moorings and homes damaged in the storm.
The extent of the damage would not be clear until daybreak, but videos from Pensacola Beach, Florida, showed storm surge pushing seawater into residential streets and parks. According to the National Weather Service, a casino barge near Coden, Alabama, broke loose because of strong winds and storm surge and slammed into a dock.
In recent days, the storm’s projected point of landfall has veered by nearly 200 miles. It had once been expected to rake over the remote, low-lying areas of southeastern Louisiana and possibly reach beyond the New Orleans metropolitan area, but the latest projections show Sally clipping the southeast corner of Mississippi as it bears down on Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama, said the storm was drifting “at the speed of a child in a candy shop,” as if it were meandering through the aisles and waffling over its choices.
“I’m well aware that those on the Gulf Coast are all too familiar with Mother Nature’s wrath,” Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama said Tuesday. “We still hope and pray Sally will not bring that type of pain and heartache, but my fellow Alabamians, Hurricane Sally is not to be taken for granted.”
A hurricane warning remained in effect for an area stretching from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, near the Louisiana border, to Navarre, near the tip of the Florida Panhandle.
A tropical storm warning covered the area west of the Pearl River to Grand Isle, Louisiana — including metropolitan New Orleans — and east of Navarre to Indian Pass, Florida.
Officials urged people to take advantage of the storm’s sluggish pace and get out of harm’s way. Those who stayed behind were warned that the waters could climb high.
“I’ve seen streets and neighborhoods quickly fill up with 5, 6, 7 and even more depth of water in a short period of time,” Sam Cochran, the Mobile County sheriff, said during a briefing Tuesday.
For those who stay behind, he added, it might be “a couple of days or longer before we can get you out.”
Behind Sally, more storms loom in the Atlantic
Still recovering from Hurricane Laura and now bracing for Hurricane Sally, residents along the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard warily watched reports of other major storms developing in the Atlantic.
On Monday, before Tropical Depression Rene dissolved, there were five concurrent named storms in the Atlantic, which has not happened since 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Three are still active.
Hurricane Paulette packed winds of 100 mph about 450 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, and threatened to bring dangerous surf and rip current conditions to Bermuda, the Bahamas and parts of the Atlantic coast.
Tropical Storm Teddy was gaining strength about 865 miles east of the Lesser Antilles, and it was projected to near “major hurricane strength” as it approaches Bermuda over the weekend.
And Tropical Storm Vicky had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph about 710 miles west of Cape Verde, but it was not projected to threaten land and was expected to weaken in the coming days.
The hurricane season has been among the most active on record, with 20 named storms so far. Along with the wildfires that have devastated the West Coast, scientists see the twin crises as yet more effects of climate change, which threatens to reshape the U.S.
Scientists say climate change has made hurricanes wetter, and there’s evidence it can make them slow down, too.
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