Hurricane Sally is slogging toward the northern Gulf Coast, where it threatens to unleash “historic” amounts of rain that could trigger “extreme life-threatening flash flooding” through at least Wednesday, according to the National Hurricane Center.

The center predicts the long-duration storm could produce as much as 30 inches of rain between southeastern Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, with widespread amounts of 10 to 20 inches.

In addition, the center is calling for an “extremely dangerous and life-threatening storm surge” in coastal areas, though forecasts for surge heights have been lowered.

Torrential rain and tropical storm-force winds walloped coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday, and the storm’s effects are expected to intensify as Sally comes ashore Wednesday morning near the Alabama-Florida border.

Sally’s plodding motion means a relentless pounding from wind and water lasting well into Wednesday.

The surge could cause the water to rise up to six feet above normally dry land in parts of coastal Alabama, including Mobile Bay, and coastal inundation could persist over multiple tidal cycles.

Wind gusts over 70 mph are likely to cause damage, downed trees and widespread power outages, especially close to where Sally comes ashore. Tornadoes could also be embedded in rain bands that move ashore.

Here are some significant developments:
  • Sally’s peak winds increased to 85 mph at 11 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. The Category 1 hurricane is forecast to sustain this intensity or slightly strengthen through landfall.
  • The storm track shifted slightly east Tuesday, with landfall now projected in coastal Alabama near the border with Florida on Wednesday morning.
  • Tropical storm-force winds were lashing the coast of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle on Tuesday night, where flash flooding was underway. Radar indicated already up to a foot of rain near Pensacola. An ocean surge of several feet was also inundating low-lying areas along the coast. More than 85,000 customers were without power.
September 15, 2020 at 11:29 PM EDT

Key takeaways from the Hurricane Center’s 11 p.m. advisory

With Sally closing in to within 60 miles of the northern Gulf Coast and strengthening slightly, the National Hurricane Center’s 11 p.m. update reinforced major messages from earlier bulletins and fine-tuned its forecast.

It reemphasized the “historic” flood risk from the slow-moving hurricane while highlighting that the worst conditions for the zone from coastal Alabama to the Florida Panhandle would occur late tonight and into the morning hours on Wednesday.

Some of its main conclusions:

  • The storm has strengthened slightly. “The eye has become a little better defined on the radar, and the central pressure has fallen to 972 mb,” the center wrote. It projects the storm’s peak winds will increase another 5 mph before landfall, from 85 to 90 mph.
  • Landfall is likely to occur in less than 12 hours. This forecast brings the center inland between about 8 a.m. and noon Eastern time on Wednesday.
  • The storm will finally pick up the pace Wednesday. “Sally should move north-northeastward, and then northeastward, with a gradual increase in forward speed,” the center wrote.
By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 11:04 PM EDT

Tracking Hurricane Sally

At 11 p.m. Eastern, Sally was positioned 65 miles south-southeast of Mobile, Ala., crawling north-northeast at just 2 mph. Maximum sustained winds were 85 mph, a 5 mph increase from the 5 p.m. advisory.

Hurricane-force winds expand 40 miles from the center and tropical-storm force winds extend outward 125 miles.

By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 10:32 PM EDT

Hurricane Sally unexpectedly intensifying as landfall looms

GULF SHORES, Ala. — In a disconcerting display of meteorological caprice, Hurricane Sally began intensifying on Tuesday night, defying forecasts and increasing the risk of stronger winds and higher storm surge.

Centered some 50 miles south-southwest of Gulf Shores just before 9 p.m. Central time, Sally was crawling northward at walking pace — but its intensity was ramping up.

Doppler radar revealed increasing velocities in the eyewall, or the ring of strongest winds and tallest clouds that whirs around the eye. There is a chance that wind gusts exceeding 85 mph will make it ashore in extreme southeastern Alabama or the western Florida Panhandle.

Data collected by an Air Force Reserve Hurricane Hunters aircraft also indicated decreasing air pressure, which means winds can spiral inward faster and the storm can strengthen. Their data also revealed some sinking air near the storm’s center, and infrared satellite imagery revealed clouds were beginning to clear out of the nascent eye.

Around the maturing eye, cloud tops were cooling — signifying thunderstorms blossoming to greater heights. That was also an alarming sign that supports a strengthening storm.

Sally’s slow motion means a prolonged threat of strong to damaging winds will exist in the eyewall, which could lash some areas between Mobile and Pensacola for an eight-to-12-hour window on either side of the eye well into Wednesday morning.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 10:09 PM EDT

Sally strengthens as hazards from rain, wind and surge escalate along northern Gulf Coast

The National Hurricane Center reports Sally’s peak winds have increased to 85 mph as the core of the storm inches onshore. Conditions continue to deteriorate, especially from coastal Alabama to the Florida Panhandle.

Flash flood warnings stretch from near Panama City to the Alabama-Mississippi border, and Doppler radar indicates up to a foot of rain has already fallen near Pensacola. Around this area, the National Weather Service predicts another four to eight inches this evening, with totals by Wednesday up to 20 to 30 inches.

In coastal Alabama and the western part of the Florida Panhandle, wind gusts have climbed to 50 to 65 mph, with reports of downed trees. The number of customers without power is around 60,000 and rising.

Water levels are also rising along the coast, and the surge has reached about four feet in Pensacola.

Below, some social media images of the deteriorating nighttime conditions:

By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 8:38 PM EDT

Sally wallops Gulf Shores, Ala., bringing torrential rain and storm surge

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Rain, wind and surge were all worsening in Gulf Shores around dusk on Tuesday. Strong wind gusts were whipping through palm trees as torrential downpours combined with storm surge to inundate roadways. Much of West Beach Boulevard was flanked by rivers of water one to two feet deep spilling onto the roadway.

Streetlights and traffic signals flickered or failed intermittently, with the wind noticeably increasing and buffeting the area as Sally slightly strengthened and drew ever nearer.

The streets were largely empty, save for police cruisers surveying the area every two or three minutes. A mandatory curfew was in effect beginning at 8 p.m.

Winds arrived in sudden jarring gusts, interspersed by periods of more regular, constant breezes.

Offshore ocean waves crashed, breaking near the coast and lapping at the stilts on which sit hundreds of homes. Many yards were flooded, and another foot of rainfall is likely to be on the way.

Virtually all roadways were coated with several inches of water, the night making it difficult to differentiate between innocuous puddles and more serious dangers ahead. By early Wednesday morning, some weather models simulate rainfall rates in excess of four inches per hour accompanying Sally’s firehouse of moisture.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 7:09 PM EDT

Major river flooding expected as Sally dumps double-digit rain totals

Hurricane Sally was crawling toward the Alabama and Mississippi coastline on Tuesday evening, packing excessive to extreme rainfall. Flooding, both coastal and freshwater, will be the most widespread and dangerous hazard associated with this storm. The National Weather Service was warning that “historic life-threatening flash flooding is likely” as Sally’s worst rains arrive.

All that excess water will pour into area rivers, many of which are likely to reach moderate to major flood stage even after the rains begin to taper down Wednesday night.

Hardest hit will probably be parts of southern Alabama and the adjacent Florida Panhandle, where at least a dozen rivers are expected to crest at moderate or major flood stage. Record crests are possible based on current forecast trends.

Among them is the Bayou Sara at Saraland on the northwest side of Mobile Bay. The river was predicted to crest at 8.5 feet.

At that level, the National Weather Service warns, “numerous houses and streets flood east of the [railroad] between Bayou Sara and Norton Creek.”

The Styx River in Elsanor, Ala., east of Mobile, was forecast to crest at 27.5 feet on Wednesday afternoon, more than 10 feet above major flood stage. That would mark the river’s second-highest crest on record.

At 21 feet, “major flooding occurs to houses and streets along the river in Seminole Landing” along the Alabama-Florida border, the National Weather Service wrote.

Flooding is also likely near Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle, where the Shoal River near Crestview on the northern edge of the base could peak four feet above major flood stage.

Additional serious flooding is anticipated along rivers in Mobile and Baldwin counties in Alabama and Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties in Florida. Flooding is also possible in Georgia as the storm eventually lifts to the northeast.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 6:30 PM EDT

Weather Service describes ‘destructive storm surge’ in coastal Alabama, Florida Panhandle

Water levels continue rising along the northern Gulf Coast as Sally closes in. Coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle have been hit particularly hard by the surge, but coastal flooding has been observed as far west as Lake Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana.

“Destructive storm surge and waves continue to impact the coastline this evening,” the National Weather Service forecast office in Mobile tweeted. “Conditions should continue to deteriorate throughout the evening and tonight.”

Scenes from social media showed docks shredded, cars and boats damaged, and roads inundated in low-lying coastal areas. The surge forecast calls for up to six feet of water above normally dry land at the coast.

Here are some social media photos and videos:

By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 5:56 PM EDT

Key takeaways from latest Hurricane Center advisory

The 5 p.m. advisory of the National Hurricane Center placed a real emphasis on Sally’s slow speed and the amount of water it is unloading on coastal areas from Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle.

Sally continues to crawl northward at a mere 2 mph as it dumps excessive rainfall. Flash flood warnings have been expanded to cover the coastline of most of the Florida Panhandle and across the border into Gulf Shores, Ala. Pensacola has already picked up nearly 4 inches of rain.

The center’s 5 p.m. advisory calls for probable “historic life-threatening flooding” along portions of the northern Gulf Coast.

In its technical discussion, the center makes the following important points:

  • The storm’s intensity is holding steady and its structure “has remained about the same” during the day and fits the mold of a Category 1 hurricane.
  • Sally will remain a slow mover for the next 24 to 48 hours. “The slow forward speed is likely to result in a historical rainfall event for the north-central Gulf Coast,” it wrote.
  • Eventually, a dip in the jet stream will draw it more to the north and northeast and it will pick up speed, probably late Wednesday into Thursday.
  • Sally’s forecast track has been tweaked slightly eastward and landfall is now projected in coastal Alabama close to the border with Florida, probably between Wednesday morning and afternoon.
By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 4:40 PM EDT

Hurricane Sally is part of a swarm of storms in the Atlantic

While Hurricane Sally closes in on the northern Gulf Coast, another hurricane, and two tropical storms are also swirling in the tropical Atlantic Ocean. In addition, three other areas of disturbed weather are under investigation.

On Monday, five tropical cyclones roamed the Atlantic, the most since September 1971. Tropical cyclones refer to all tropical systems with a closed low-pressure center, including depressions, storms and hurricanes. The count was down to four Tuesday, after Tropical Depression Rene dissipated.

A year-to-date record of 20 named storms have formed in 2020 and, after Wilfred is named, forecasters will draw storm names from the Greek alphabet.

Here’s a brief overview of the other active systems in the tropical Atlantic, in addition to Sally:

  • Hurricane Paulette, which struck Bermuda directly on Monday, was 570 miles northeast of Bermuda, racing to the northeast at 29 mph. Its peak winds are 105 mph and it is no threat to land. By Thursday, it is predicted to transition to a post-tropical storm.
  • Tropical Storm Teddy was gaining strength and forecast to become a hurricane by late Tuesday or early Wednesday. With sustained winds of 65 mph, it was moving west-northwest at 13 mph, positioned 960 miles east of the Lesser Antilles. Its forecast track keeps it away from land for the next five days.
  • Tropical Storm Vicki was positioned 560 miles northwest of the Cabo Verde islands, heading west-northwest at 9 mph. It is forecast to weaken and dissipate over the next 48 hours and is no threat to land.
  • An area of disturbed weather under investigation was located a few hundred miles south-southeast of the Cabo Verde Islands and is given a 70 percent chance of becoming a tropical depression or storm in the next five days. If it becomes a storm, it will be named Wilfred.
  • A second area under investigation was located in the southwest Gulf of Mexico. It has a 20 percent chance of developing over the next five days.
  • A third area over the northeastern Atlantic Ocean could acquire tropical characteristics over the coming days and has 20 percent chance of developing.
By Jason Samenow
September 15, 2020 at 4:17 PM EDT

Storm surge concerns grow along Alabama coast

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Flooding was already becoming an issue Tuesday afternoon in Gulf Shores, Ala., where more than a foot of water covered numerous area roadways.

A combination of building storm surge and very heavy rainfall, the flooding was set to worsen significantly as the core of Sally neared Tuesday night.

The yards of homes on East First and East Second avenues were submerged beneath a few feet of water; the homes themselves were built on stilts. Much of the area is only between 5 and 8 feet above sea level, highly vulnerable to storm-surge flooding.

The water had crested over several of the stairs leading up to Al’s Liquor, the parking lot inaccessible. Water more than a foot deep surrounded a neighboring tattoo parlor. Windmill Ridge Road has been shut down by local officials and was completely impassible.

Many nearby observation stations had reported a 1.5 to 3-foot storm surge Tuesday, and that number will probably climb as surge values approach 4 to 7 feet in and near Mobile Bay tonight. High tide occurred at 11:08 a.m. Central. Sally will be churning very close to land during the 10:05 p.m. low tide Tuesday night, but the storm’s slow movement means flooding is still likely as the midday high tide looms on Wednesday.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 3:00 PM EDT

Sally’s first flash flood warnings issued along Florida Panhandle

GULF SHORES, Ala. — The first flash flood warnings of Hurricane Sally were issued during the late morning hours on Tuesday, covering parts of the Florida Panhandle. Panama City, Tyndall Air Force Base, Freeport, and Mexico Beach — all areas struck by Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018 — were included in the warnings.

Rainfall rates of between a half inch and an inch per hour were pivoting ashore, with radar estimating 3 to 5 inches had already fallen near the coast by 1:30 p.m. Central. Radar often underestimates rainfall during tropical systems.

The soaking rain, which will continue through this evening and bring widespread flood concerns, was accompanying a band of torrential downpours spiraling inward from the southeast. Additional feeder bands were taking shape and looked to target adjacent coastal Alabama during the evening.

The Weather Prediction Center, responsible for forecasting many of the freshwater hazards associated with storms, issued a rare “high risk” of flash flooding.

The National Hurricane Center warned that “historic life-threatening flash flooding is likely,” calling for up to 30 inches of rain to fall in some areas.

Urban flooding and river flooding alike will be possible, and Sally’s eventual remnants may even trigger flash flooding well inland late Wednesday and Thursday. A widespread 4 to 6 inches is likely for much of central Georgia, including Atlanta, with localized 8-inch totals possible.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 2:25 PM EDT

Sally’s motion has slowed to a crawl. That’s both good and bad.

LOXLEY, Ala. — Hurricane Sally was sauntering north at barely walking pace — a sluggish 2 mph — as it lackadaisically approached the northern Gulf Coast. Recent weather models have delayed Sally’s anticipated landfall even further, with the fickle storm probably moving ashore Wednesday morning.

Sally’s slow speed was both good and bad. By churning up cooler waters below the sea surface, the storm has worked to slow its intensification, its strength plateauing as an 80 mph Category 1 hurricane. But by moving at a snail’s pace, Sally’s prolonged rainfall will continue to deluge parts of southern Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, causing widespread significant freshwater flooding.

The virtual lack of movement is due to weak steering currents throughout the height of the atmosphere. Eventually, an approaching trough — or dip in the jet stream accompanied by low pressure — will arrive from the west, helping scoop Sally northeastward.

Predicting the track of slow-moving or stalled storms is challenging, since the system can be influenced by subtler atmospheric features that would ordinarily pale in comparison with stouter steering currents.

Sally is most likely to make landfall somewhere in the extreme east of coastal Mississippi, the beaches of Alabama or the Florida Panhandle.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 1:36 PM EDT

Interstate 10 into Alabama virtually empty

LOXLEY, Ala. — The ordinarily well-traveled Interstate 10, which runs along the Gulf Coast and stretches between Jacksonville, Fla., and Los Angeles, was quiet in Alabama as sheets of rain poured down Tuesday morning. The eastbound lanes were virtually vacant, with hurricane warnings in effect along the thoroughfare’s entire passage through coastal Alabama.

Eastbound travelers departing Mississippi left patches of blue sky behind, the eastern horizon dark as dusk beneath a veil of 30,000- to 40,000-foot-tall clouds. Rain abruptly appeared east of Biloxi, Miss., becoming steady near the Alabama border.

“Hurricane warning in effect for this area,” read electronic messaging signs positioned along the highway. Winds were predominantly light during the midmorning, but occasional erratic gusts buffeted vehicles as squall lines swept in from the east.

In Mobile Bay, islands threaded by Interstate 10 were already seeing storm-surge flooding inundate restaurant parking lots and low-lying areas. Water had already entered several storage buildings, sheds and picnic areas.

By late in the morning, the breeze was noticeably increasing, the water was rising and the next band of moderate to heavy rainfall was soon to arrive.

By Matthew Cappucci
September 15, 2020 at 12:51 PM EDT

Biloxi, Miss., braces for potential major coastal flooding

BILOXI, Miss. — Hurricane Sally appears likely to hit just east of this city of 46,000 on a peninsula jutting into the Gulf of Mexico, and though that might spare Biloxi some of the worst winds, it could still mean a significant storm surge and heavy rains.

Authorities remained on guard Tuesday for major coastal flooding.

“We’re still looking at a storm surge of 6 to 9 feet,” said Biloxi spokeswoman Cecilia Dobbs Walton, adding that the city is prone to high water even during ordinary rainstorms.

Fire officials have readied water rescue teams, and they expect urgent calls for help as the rain picks up.

“It never fails, people still get out and travel in it,” she said. “We still have to rescue them.”

By Maria Sacchetti