Sally was upgraded overnight to a Category 2 storm, with recorded winds over 100 m.p.h., and is now expected to make landfall near the border of Florida and Alabama on Wednesday.
Meteorologists said the slow-moving storm could essentially park itself over the coastal region, dumping enormous amounts of rain and raising the threat of devastating floods.
Hurricane Sally, moving at a walking pace over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, gathered strength overnight even as its course shifted eastward toward Pensacola, Fla.
The languid pace and lurching path of Sally, which was moving at just 2 miles per hour as it intensified early Wednesday into a Category 2 hurricane with 100 mile-per-hour winds, has increased chances that the storm could bring 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 four to six 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, Ala., warned in a tweet.
Late Tuesday, residents and local news outlets in Mobile and Gulf Shores, Ala., were posting videos of ripping winds, storm surges and heavy rainfall. Videos from Pensacola Beach, Fla., showed storm surge pushing seawater into residential streets and parks. According to the National Weather Service, a casino barge near Coden, Ala., 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, Ala., 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 on 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, Miss., 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, La. — including metropolitan New Orleans — and east of Navarre to Indian Pass, Fla.
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 five, six, seven and even more depth of water in a short period of time,” Sam Cochran, the Mobile County sheriff, said during a briefing on Tuesday.
For those who stay behind, he added, it might be “a couple of days or longer before we can get you out.”
There is a profound respect for the power of the weather in the 318-year-old port city of Mobile, Ala., where hurricanes have always been a fact of life. The proof on Tuesday was in its near-empty downtown streets as night fell and the city waited for slow-moving Hurricane Sally to make its way ashore.
Bars and restaurants that featured signs prompted by the coronavirus crisis (“No Handshaking,” one declared) were now sandbagged in anticipation of the new crisis coming up from the south. Violent winds animated the arms of old oak trees. Traffic lights on wires tossed and shook.
In Bienville Square, the 19th-century fountain honoring Dr. George Ketchum, who helped bring reliable drinking water to the city, burbled along with hardly anyone to see it.
Over the last day or so, some longtime Mobile residents said that Hurricane Sally, with its dangerous and stubborn procrastination, reminded them of Hurricane Danny in 1997, which also moved at a crawling pace while dumping rain for hours, triggering mudslides and catastrophic river flooding in South Alabama.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson urged people in low-lying areas known to be flood-prone to move to higher ground.
“The pleas that we’re making to you, the warnings that we’re giving you, they’re serious,” he said during a news conference on Tuesday. “They’re talking about unprecedented amounts of rainfall.”
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.
Hurricane Paulette packed winds of 100 miles per hour 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 miles per hour 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 America.
Scientists say climate change has made hurricanes wetter, and there’s evidence it can make them slow down, too.
Reporting was contributed by Johnny Diaz, Richard Fausset, Rick Rojas, Marc Santora, Daniel Victor and Will Wright.
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