Torrential rain battering Alabama and Florida is forecast to continue for up to 12 more hours, with wind gusts over 80mph
Hurricane Sally made landfall on the US Gulf coast early on Wednesday morning, with pounding rain and winds whipping above 100mph but with the huge category 2 storm system grinding along at just 2 mph – a turtle’s walking pace – increasing the danger of flooding.
The slow-motion storm exhausted residents in Alabama who listened through the night to tornado-warning sirens, phone alerts and howling winds, many frightened, sheltering but also sweltering indoors after power failures, as the storm approached.
As the sun rose on battered Alabama and the Florida panhandle, torrential rain was battering the coast and forecast to continue for up to 12 more hours in parts, accumulating at three to four inches per hour, with wind gusts over 80mph in places.
The slowness also made the storm deceptively dangerous; while spinning in the Gulf of Mexico it gathered rain, which it then unleashed from Louisiana in the west to northern Florida in the east.
Emergency authorities and weather services found a refrain as the storm approached, warning residents of “historic, life-threatening flooding”.
Historic, life-threatening flash flooding likely through Wednesday along and just inland of the coast from the western FL Panhandle to far southeastern MS. Widespread moderate to major river flooding will then spread northeastward through the week. https://t.co/VyWINDk3xP pic.twitter.com/nXqcNwMuf9
“Torrential rains continue to batter the coast. Rainfall rates will get EVEN HIGHER when the eye wall of #Sally gets closer to the coast,” the National Weather Service posted to its Twitter account at 11pm. “CONDITIONS WILL GET WORSE.”
Before landfall in Alabama, Sally dropped nearly 2ft of rain, spun off multiple tornadoes, and knocked out power at least 50 miles inland, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in the dark.
The damage unfolded so slowly, though, that sleepless coastal residents took to social media in exasperation, trading weather details and puns about Sally “slowing her Mustang down”.
“Present conditions are preventing us from answering calls at this time,” police in Orange Beach, Alabama, announced at 2.40am. “Please take all measures to be as safe as possible. If you have the option to move to higher ground do so now.”
Finally at 4.45am local time the storm’s eye wall, with winds topping 105mph, reached land near Gulf Shores, Alabama.
#Sally has made landfall near Gulf Shores Alabama at 445 AM CDT as a category 2 hurricane. Maximum sustained winds were 105 mph with a minimum central pressure of 965 mb. More: https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB pic.twitter.com/zdyilBhdic
The storm pushed a surge of ocean water on to the coast. In Mobile Bay, just next to Gulf Shores, five rivers drain into the inlet and the authorities were warning of a potentially devastating flooding situation to come.
Sally’s northern eyewall had raked the Gulf coast with hurricane-force winds and rain from Pensacola Beach, Florida, westward to Dauphin Island, Alabama, for hours before its center finally hit land.
Trees were bending over and flailing around in the howling winds in downtown Pensacola, where driving rain flooded streets up to the bumpers of parked cars.
Nearly 400,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity by early Wednesday, according to the poweroutage.us site.
In daylight hours on Wednesday, the rainfall was being measured in feet, not inches swamping homes and trapping people in high water.
In the panhandle’s Escambia county Chip Simmons, the chief sheriff’s deputy, vowed to keep deputies out helping residents as long as physically possible. The county includes Pensacola, one of the largest cities on the Gulf coast.
“The sheriff’s office will be there until we can no longer safely be out there, and then and only then will we pull our deputies in,” Simmons said at a storm briefing late on Tuesday.
Flash floods pushed water into homes in Alabama and Florida, and officials in Pensacola and surrounding Escambia county, with a combined population of about 320,000, have urged residents to stick to text messages for contacting family and friends to keep cellphone service open for 911 calls.
“It’s not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet,” said a National Weather Service forecaster, David Eversole, in Mobile, Alabama.
“Sally’s moving so slowly, so it just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding the area with tropical rain and just powerful winds. It’s just a nightmare.”
It was the second hurricane to hit the Gulf coast in less than three weeks and the latest blow in one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever recorded.
At the start of the week, Sally was one of a record-tying five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic, strung out like charms on a bracelet.
This for a storm that, during the weekend, appeared to be headed for New Orleans.
Some experts are likening the storm’s slow progression to that of Hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston, Texas, in 2017. Harvey and Sally came ashore as crawling super-soakers.
Tuesday into Wednesday, low-lying properties in south-east Louisiana were swamped by the surge of water pushed ashore by the wind.
In Orange Beach, Alabama, Chris Parks, a tourist from Nashua, New Hampshire, spent the night monitoring the storm and taking care of his infant child as strong winds battered his family’s hotel room. Their return flight home was canceled, so they were stuck in Alabama until Friday.
“I’m just glad we are together,” Parks said. “The wind is crazy. You can hear solid heavy objects blowing through the air and hitting the building.”
Tate Reeves, Mississippi’s governor, urged people in the southern part of his state to prepare for flash flooding.
As Sally tracks inland, more than 26 million people in the south and south-eastern US are under flash flood warnings or watches as Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week.
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