The storm had cut a tricky path through the Gulf of Mexico, at first sluggish and meandering and then unexpectedly intensifying just before landfall at 5:45 a.m. The storm accelerated from an 80 mph Category 1 storm to a 105 mph Category 2 storm between 8 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday.
“It was an unbelievably freaky right turn of a storm that none of us ever expected,” said Tony Kennon, the mayor of Orange Beach, Ala., a city of 6,200, adding that the impact could be worse than Hurricane Ivan, which struck on the same day in 2004. “Twenty four to 36 hours ago it was nothing but rain nuisance in all of our minds. But what a difference 24 hours makes.”
At least one person was killed in the city and one was missing, Kennon told the Associated Press. He said he could not immediately provide any details.
While in the Gulf, Sally loaded up with moisture from the warm water and unleashed it over Alabama and Florida in the form of pounding rain while the ocean pushed storm surges inland. More than 500,000 customers in Alabama and Florida lost power. The National Hurricane Center warned of “historic” flooding as the storm pushed inland toward Georgia and the Carolinas late Wednesday.
In Pensacola, a seaside city of 53,000 on the Florida Panhandle, more than two feet of rain and nearly six feet of storm surge — the third-highest on record — turned streets into murky rivers and trapped people in their homes. Winds ripped a construction barge from its moorings and hurled it into the Three Mile Bridge over Escambia Bay, leaving a gaping hole. A crane toppled on another section of the bridge, and a second runaway barge was blown 10 miles west, where it washed ashore on the 18th hole of the golf course at the Pensacola Country Club.
Kristin and Steve Hutzelmann were in their Pensacola home when two huge pine trees crashed through their roof around 4 a.m. Wednesday.
“It was horrible,” Kristen Hutzelmann said of the storm. “We went through [Hurricane] Katrina, and that was moving so quickly it was over and done with. But this one just would not go away.”
As daylight broke Wednesday, state and county officials in Florida and Alabama deployed hundreds of emergency personnel and the state National Guard to assess damage and rescue the stranded. Boat teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard, along with civilian volunteers, helped with the rescue operations.
Sally is one of 20 named tropical storms that have formed so far in the Atlantic in 2020, a record, and one of six hurricanes to make landfall, including four in the United States. Sally is part of a new trend of hurricanes that strengthen just before landfall, a time when they would traditionally lose power, a dangerous effect that scientists are attributing to climate change. These rapidly intensifying storms are likely to inflict greater damage and catch residents and rescuers off guard, experts warn.
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, the hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm with 70 mph winds. Flooding was expected to expand into Georgia and the Carolinas late Wednesday into Thursday as the storm marched northeast.
High winds wreaked havoc during the storm, but authorities said heavy rains inflicted significant damage.
Officials in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, said emergency crews rescued 377 people. A curfew is in effect for the next three days.
“For your safety and the safety of first responders, PLEASE STAY OFF THE ROADS,” the city of Pensacola said on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. “Conditions are still incredibly unsafe.”
The storm arrived 16 years to the day after Hurricane Ivan bulldozed the city, home to a naval base and a large military community. After Ivan, the town rebuilt its lamp-lighted downtown with boutiques, restaurants and cafes, which have struggled during the pandemic. The storm poured on more misery.
In the Long Hollow neighborhood a mile north of Escambia Bay, residents awakened to find their homes turned into islands, surrounded by water.
Steven Gray, a 30-year-old professional photographer who lives in a renovated shotgun-style house on a hillside, said he went to sleep the night before thinking the city would dodge the worst.
“I honestly didn’t expect that we’d get the eye of the storm so close to us,” Gray said.
He awoke at 4 a.m. when his house lost power, and he opened the front door to see submerged cars and downed power lines.
About two blocks downhill, Gray’s ex-wife, Annie, had a much ruder awakening.
“I woke up in about a foot and a half of water,” she said. “Water was bubbling up through my kitchen floor and rushing in under the front door.”
She dialed 911 but couldn’t get through. So she called her ex-husband, and he waded into the deluge in an attempt to rescue her and her six-month-old kitten, Fitz.
But he could not make it.
“When I started to wade across, it got neck-deep pretty quickly,” he said. “It was at least five feet of water.”
By the time he was forced to turn back, the weight of the water kept Annie Gray from opening her front door. She grabbed Fitz, crawled out a window and took refuge in an upstairs neighbor’s apartment while the storm raged. Back at her own apartment, sludge and debris blocked the front door.
“I just moved in in June and had just gotten the place set up,” she said. “I feel like I’m in survival mode and just trying to be optimistic, but at the same time, I just want to curl up and cry.”
By 9:30 a.m. the flood was starting to recede, and it was clear that the damage was catastrophic.
From the Florida Panhandle to Alabama, county officials reported washed-out roads, debris in the streets and damaged or flooded houses. An animal refuge in Freeport, Fla., about two hours east of Pensacola, reported on social media that it had to evacuate dogs and cats because of flooding.
In Alabama, Baldwin County reported “major to catastrophic” flooding and debris in the roads.
“This is an extremely dangerous situation,” the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency said on Twitter. The city of Orange Beach imposed a curfew and temporarily closed incoming lanes on bridges to nonresidents.
Kennon, the mayor in Orange Beach, Ala., said assessing the damage was slow going because there was so much flooding.
“This has been a horrific event over the last 24 hours, as I’m sure all of you know,” Kennon said on a Facebook update late Wednesday afternoon. “I’m very sorry for anything you’ve lost.”
On the main road through Perdido Key, a law office on the ground floor was missing its windows and doors. A flipped couch and overturned desk were visible through an open wall on the second floor, and the building’s entire roof lay upside down in the adjacent parking lot.
In Mobile, Ala., a port city of nearly 190,000 people on a horseshoe-shaped bay, powerful winds shook the city overnight, and scattered branches covered roadways. Power was out across much of the city, but most locals seemed thankful the storm had largely spared the region.
By Wednesday morning, residents across town were out with rakes and gloves, beginning to clean up.
A huge tree had fallen across Old Shell Road, blocking the busy thoroughfare. Several gashes marked where locals had tried to saw through the tree without success. Soon, two Mobile police officers arrived to clear the way for heavier road-clearing equipment.
In downtown Mobile, shards of plexiglass, fallen trees and roofing were scattered on the road, but the damage appeared minor.
For many residents of Pensacola, Wednesday’s devastation was all too familiar.
When Pensacola was settled by the Spanish, in 1559, the area that now makes up the downtown core was effectively an island, surrounded on one side by Escambia Bay and on the other three by wetlands.
Much of today’s downtown area is built atop those wetlands. The legacy of building in flood zones and the city’s aging storm water infrastructure have left Pensacola vulnerable to flooding for most of its history.
That fact was brought into sharp relief in April 2014, when a storm dumped more than 20 inches of rain on the area in less than 48 hours.
The resulting flood, which experts described as an event that happens perhaps once every 100 to 200 years, swamped the city’s infrastructure, destroying homes, sweeping away bridges and turning roads into turbid rivers of mud and debris.
Escambia County and the city of Pensacola have spent nearly $100 million to repair and improve the area’s infrastructure since 2014.
Sacchetti reported from Biloxi, Miss., Cusick from Perdido Key, Fla., and Mobile, Ala., and Strickland from Pensacola.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that scientists believe the increased number of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Atlantic is due to rising ocean temperatures linked to climate change. Warming ocean waters due to climate change are making hurricanes more intense and wetter but not necessarily more numerous.