The fortified downtown area of Pensacola, which has received significant attention and hurricane-proofing in recent years, saw significant flooding this week, but its high waters receded quickly as the storm passed early Wednesday and the tide went out. Wedgewood, on the other hand, is nearly defenseless against storm surge off the Gulf of Mexico, and its waters do not go away so quickly.
It also faces another challenge: It is surrounded by landfills and a giant sand pit, which have long caused residents to raise health concerns and also have served to channel water toward residents’ homes, they say.
So as Sally made a hard right turn in the Gulf early this week, intensifying as it veered away from New Orleans and toward the Florida-Alabama border, residents knew what was likely to happen. But they didn’t all have time to escape as it approached landfall not far from here.
“Once it said it was a direct hit, it was too late to evacuate,” Evil said. “At about 2 a.m. Wednesday, my granddaughter was like: ‘Granny, look at the water.’ ”
Flowing off and around an eight-foot-tall dirt berm protecting the sand pit behind her home, the water came fast. Evil watched as it flowed over her carpets, appliances and everything else she owns. It was the fourth time her home has flooded since she purchased it in 2007.
As the remnants of the hurricane moved northeast across Georgia and Virginia on Thursday, areas of Florida and Alabama assessed the damage, much of which was from storm surge along the coast and torrential rains — as much as 30 inches in some places.
At peak surge, ocean water poured into the coastal Florida Panhandle, where heights reached 5.6 feet, the third-highest level on record in Pensacola, behind only Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. Belleview, Fla., saw 30 inches of rain as Sally slowed to a crawl and hammered the coastline.
Pensacola saw almost 25 inches of rain.
As of Thursday morning, more than 500,000 customers in Alabama and Florida were without power. Evil and her family wandered their dark house, seeing what could be salvaged.
“You don’t know what’s healthy to keep and what’s not,” she said. “What can be saved? We’re going to have to go through everything to see what can be done.”
The children’s beds were covered with clothes, toys and school supplies, an effort to keep things off the still-soaked carpets. The air in the home reeked of mold, and tiles from the roof covered the backyard. Evil felt certain she would have to shutter the day care she runs out of her house.
“We probably won’t have lights for another seven days,” Gibbes said as he tried unsuccessfully to hook up the family’s generator.
“When it dries, you best believe they’re going to come and push that dirt right back up,” Evil said, pointing to the mound.
Gibbes, 62, agreed. “If it weren’t for that, this water wouldn’t even be here,” he said. “It would run off.”
Evil renovated the home after it last flooded in 2017, but this week she said she is tired of the cycle: “I been telling him I want to move,” Evil said. “I want to move, and this is why.”
The situation is made more difficult because Evil cares for her three young grandchildren who are 13, 10 and 7. She recently adopted the younger two. They would eventually like more space for the large family, but not on this plot.
“I’d say we could add on, but we can’t stop that water,” Gibbes said.
The family turned to more mundane concerns. The food they had left would spoil if Gibbes could not get the generator to work. Because electricity remained out, Evil couldn’t assess the condition of her appliances. But worse, the environment simply did not feel safe.
“My 10-year-old had open-heart surgery in June,” Evil said. “So we can’t really have her inhale all these smells.”
But it seemed the family really didn’t have much choice. Unable to find a hotel, they planned on continuing to sleep in the home.
Down the street, signs tacked to trees advertised “Guaranteed white sand” for sale. At a white gate marking the entrance to Wedgewood, a neighborhood watch sign sits next to one that is a bit more unusual: “Alert: hydrogen sulfide may be present.” That sign, hung by a local environmental activist, provides a phone number for the Escambia County Water Quality and Land Management Division.
Calvin Green, 50, said he grew up in the Wedgewood neighborhood. When he was a child, he remembers hunting in the open woods where the sand pit would later be built.
“It used to be just a stream when they started building the sand pit,” he said. “Then it became like a lake. Now, you have to have a boat to cross there.”
Kurtina Gaines, 48, said she suspects the landfills and sand pit surrounding Wedgewood contribute to erosion and the constant flooding the neighborhood sees.
“We’ve been through a lot of things, fighting all that,” she said. “But it’s all still here.”
Robert Dukes, 66, was likewise concerned: “We’ve been having our share of floods.”
Dukes said the holding pond meant to capture the neighborhood’s floodwaters often fails to do so. On Thursday, local drains were submerged in deep, stagnant puddles.
Dukes’s son, Robert Dukes Jr., 40, thought neglect and even outright racism play a part in the neighborhood’s issues.
“That hole down there wasn’t dug deep enough,” he said. “Why? Because this is what happens anywhere it’s a Black community. Period.”
Natasha Kelson, 46, sat on her Wedgewood porch to get a break from the stifling indoor heat. “It was a lake out here yesterday,” she said, pointing to her yard.
Kelson is pregnant — due in three weeks — and she said she felt “miserable” with no air conditioning. But aside from the heat, she was happy the home she shares with her husband, William Kelson, also 46, had been largely spared.
In the backyard, where the Kelsons just held their baby shower, the grass was strewn with leaves and branches, and a fence was slightly bent.
“I’m going to have to rake all this up,” William Kelson said, looking slightly distressed. “But at least my family’s safe.”
Ian Livingston in Washington contributed to this report.