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After two days spent spinning less than 150 miles off the coast of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi, Sally finally made its move to come ashore Wednesday morning, unleashing up to 30 inches of rain, 100 mph wind gusts and a six-foot storm surge.

Areas in coastal Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle were hardest hit. By Wednesday evening, the worst weather had departed these areas, but flooding rain had spread inland over eastern Alabama and southwest Georgia.

The National Hurricane Center warned that “historic and catastrophic flooding, including widespread moderate to major river flooding” was continuing to unfold.

As Sally made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane near Gulf Shores, Ala., at 5:45 a.m., fierce winds cut power to more than 500,000 customers in Alabama and Florida. Its surge inundated Pensacola in nearly six feet of water, the third-highest level on record.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, Sally had weakened to a tropical storm with 60 mph winds, but the flooding threat continued as heavy rain expanded into Georgia and was expected to reach the Carolinas on Thursday.

While in the Gulf of Mexico, Sally picked up tremendous amounts of moisture from the warm waters, which it is wringing out as heavy rainfall over the Southeast.

The storm deviated from forecasts calling for it to stay at the same level of intensity and instead rapidly intensified shortly before landfall, going from an 80 mph Category 1 storm to a 105 mph Category 2 storm between 8 p.m. Tuesday and 2 a.m. Wednesday.

Here are some significant developments:
  • On Wednesday evening, heavy rain had exited the hard-hit zone stretching between Pensacola and Mobile, but severe flooding continued in some areas because of rising rivers. The most intense rain was focused inland in southeastern Alabama and southwest Georgia, with flood warnings expanding into this area.
  • Into Thursday, the Hurricane Center expected significant flooding in inland portions of eastern Alabama and central Georgia. Thursday into Friday, heavy rain and flooding was forecast to spread from western South Carolina through much of North Carolina and into southeast Virginia.
  • At 5 p.m., the storm’s peak winds were near 60 mph as it headed northeast at 7 mph. It was forecast to weaken to a tropical depression by Thursday morning.
  • A tornado watch was in effect until 7 p.m. Wednesday for southern Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and southwestern Georgia.
September 16, 2020 at 5:46 PM EDT

Heavy rain and flooding to spread across Georgia and Carolinas through Thursday

By Jason Samenow

At 5 p.m., Tropical Storm Sally was positioned 55 miles north-northeast of Pensacola, Fla., and was unloading heavy rain in the zone between Montgomery, Ala., and Macon, Ga. The rain had not quite reached Atlanta but was expanding northeast. (See the radar.)

Sally’s peak winds were down to 60 mph and were expected to decrease further. Overnight, Sally is likely to be reclassified as a tropical depression.

Despite the weakening winds, the National Hurricane Center continued to emphasize the threat from heavy rainfall.

“Significant and widespread flooding is expected across inland portions of Alabama, central Georgia and upstate South Carolina, and widespread flooding is possible across western/central North Carolina, and far southeast Virginia,” the center wrote.

The National Weather Service predicts widespread rainfall of 2 to 6 inches between eastern Alabama and southeast Virginia, with pockets of 6 to 10 inches.

The observed rainfall in the hardest-hit areas of the Florida Panhandle and coastal Alabama was impressive, in the range of 20 to 30 inches.

September 16, 2020 at 5:30 PM EDT

Waters surge back into Mobile Bay, Ala.

By Matthew Cappucci

SPANISH FORT, Ala. — Though Sally was departing, storm surge was beginning to increase once again in Alabama’s Mobile Bay late Wednesday afternoon. While initial estimates called for four to six feet of inundation above normally dry ground, strong northerly winds gusting over 80 mph in Sally’s western eyewall pushed water out of Mobile Bay on Wednesday morning. That caused a nearly six-foot deficit in sea levels, well below predicted tide heights. In some places, new dry land was exposed for a few hours. Water levels bottomed out around 9 a.m.

The water came surging back and then some by 3 p.m. Central time, when Tropical Storm Sally was centered about 100 miles to the east-northeast, near Andalusia, Ala. In western Mobile Bay, a 0.7-foot surge was measured, while a 2.2-foot surge was occurring along Mobile Bay’s eastern fringes.

Along the on and off ramps of the Battleship Parkway, which bisects Mobile Bay, water could be seen lapping at the abutments of roadways just a foot below the pavement late Wednesday afternoon.

While observations were unavailable at Mobile Downtown Airport, Doppler radar data indicated northerly winds with perhaps a slight westerly component would continue to bring elevated water levels to eastern portions of the bay in the hours ahead.

September 16, 2020 at 4:47 PM EDT

As Sally moves inland, forecasters monitor potential for more Atlantic storms

By Jason Samenow

Sally is one of 20 named tropical storms that have formed in the Atlantic in 2020 and one of six hurricanes to make landfall, including four in the United States. It is unlikely the last.

Forecasters at the National Hurricane Center were also monitoring Hurricane Teddy, Tropical Storm Vicky and three others areas of disturbed weather.

Teddy was perhaps most concerning. Declared a hurricane early Wednesday, it was rapidly strengthening with 100 mph winds about 775 miles east of the Lesser Antilles. By late Thursday, its winds are forecast to strengthen to 130 mph, making it a Category 4.

Teddy is forecast to track northwestward, potentially close to Bermuda by Monday. It could be the island’s second encounter with a hurricane in a week, after it was directly hit by Hurricane Paulette this past Monday.

Beyond that, forecast models suggest Teddy could make a beeline for New England or the Canadian Maritimes by next Tuesday or Wednesday, although confidence in the long-term track forecast is low.

Tropical Storm Vicky, positioned 795 miles west-northwest of the Cabo Verde Islands of Africa, is not a concern. It is weakening and forecast to dissipate by the end of the week.

The Hurricane Center is investigating three additional disturbances, two of which have a strong chance to become named storms. A disturbance in the southwest Gulf of Mexico has a 70 percent chance of developing in the next five days, the center said. Another disturbance a few hundred miles northeast of the Cabo Verde Islands is also given a 70 percent chance to become a tropical depression or storm. The third disturbance in the northeast Atlantic has a low (20 percent) chance to develop.

The next storm to be named will be Wilfred. After Wilfred, all names will have been used up, and forecasters will need to tap the Greek alphabet for referencing storms.

September 16, 2020 at 4:38 PM EDT

Sally floods the Gulf Coast as the West burns, offering unsettling showcase of climate change impacts

By Andrew Freedman

Tropical Storm Sally, which is producing a damaging deluge in Florida, Alabama and soon in Georgia, exhibits some traits that climate scientists have been warning about regarding these extreme events in a warming world.

For one, the storm hasn’t so much moved as limped over the coast, having come ashore early Wednesday morning at a forward speed of just 2 mph. Some research published in the past few years has shown a slowdown in tropical storms and hurricanes making landfall in the United States, which may be related to changes in the movement of air at upper levels of the atmosphere as the Arctic warms. Hurricanes Harvey, Dorian and now Sally were all especially slow movers that dumped inordinate amounts of rain, in addition to destructive winds.

However, while other studies support this hypothesis of slowing storms, this is an area of ongoing research.

Another area, though, that scientists are far more confident about is that storms such as Sally are already dumping more rainfall than they used to because of warming seas and air temperatures. In addition, they’re undergoing a process of rapid intensification more frequently than before, as Sally did twice before coming ashore in Alabama. This trend is also related to the same physical shifts in the planet’s climate, since adding heat to the ocean and air increases the energy available for these menacing storms.

Lastly, sea level rise due to melting glaciers and ice sheets is making even weaker hurricanes more damaging by making it easier to cause coastal flooding.

This storm is hitting at the same time as another climate-change-tied disaster is gripping the West, where more than 5 million acres have burned in record-breaking wildfires during just the past few weeks. Climate studies have long shown that a warmer climate will lead to more extreme wildfire conditions that enable such blazes to spread more rapidly, and that there is already a human-driven increase in the acres burned in the West.

September 16, 2020 at 4:00 PM EDT

Interstate 10 shut down between southeast Alabama and Pensacola, Fla.

By Matthew Cappucci

ROBERTSDALE, Ala. — More than 500 people swarmed a Buc-ee’s travel stop at the intersection of Interstate 10 and the Baldwin Beach Expressway in Baldwin County, Ala., on Wednesday afternoon. Traffic was being diverted off the eastbound lanes of the highway once the Florida-bound side of the interstate was closed because of flooding.

A caravan of pickup trucks, armed with chain saws, gasoline, and even a fan boat, lined up along the shoulder of the eastbound on-ramp shortly before 2 p.m. Central time, after a police officer had been dispatched to clear the highway. The officer estimated it would be reopened in 20 or 30 minutes.

Inside Buc-ee’s, serpentine lines wove around the store, travelers stocking up on fresh food and water. It was one of the few stores around that was open. Long lines of traffic snaked up and down the rows of the parking lot as customers refueled.

The jam-packed store offered no sign of social distancing; about a third of customers wore masks or facial coverings. Large crowds gathered around condiment stands and self-serve beverage machines.

An ambulance and police cruiser were parked with flashing lights at the entrance.

I-10 is the southernmost major highway in the Lower 48 states, stretching from California to Florida.

September 16, 2020 at 3:25 PM EDT

Scenes of damage along northern Gulf Coast from social media

By Jason Samenow

Marinas wrecked, homes heavily damaged, communities flooded, trees toppled, wires down, roads inundated and blocked, and vehicles flipped.

Scenes from social media offer a sense of the extent of Sally’s toll in the hard-hit zone between the western Florida Panhandle and Alabama coast.

Below find photos and video showing some of the damage …

September 16, 2020 at 3:02 PM EDT

Pensacola, Fla., facing serious flooding after Hurricane Sally took hard turn to the east and hit nearby

By T.S. Strickland

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Downtown Pensacola, just to the east of where Hurricane Sally made landfall early Wednesday, was among the hardest-hit coastal areas, with residents waking up to streets that had become rivers and lakes, even more than a mile north of Escambia Bay.

Steven Gray, a professional photographer who lives in the Long Hollow neighborhood, went to bed, like most, expecting that the city would be spared any serious impacts.

“I honestly didn’t expect that we’d get the eye of the storm so close to us,” Gray said. “I heard midday yesterday it was going to hit Biloxi. Then, last night, I heard it was taking a hard turn east.”

He was awakened when his building lost power about 4 a.m. and walked to the front door to investigate. Gray’s home is built into a hillside, about 10 feet above the street beneath. Peering out the window and down the block, he could see cars submerged and power lines downed.

About two blocks away, Gray’s ex-wife, Annie, was receiving a much ruder awakening. She had moved into her apartment, in a lower-lying area, just two months before and had just finished furnishing it the prior week.

“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 could not get through to anyone. So she called her ex-husband. Steven waded into the deluge in an attempt to rescue Annie and her six-month old kitten, Fitz, before being forced back by rising floodwater.

“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 Steven was forced to turn back, the weight of the water kept Annie 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.

By 9:30 a.m. the water was starting to recede, and it was clear that the damage was catastrophic. At a midmorning news conference, Escambia County officials said emergency rescue teams had been deployed across the county. Boat teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Coast Guard, along with civilian volunteers, were en route to help with the rescue operations.

In Escambia Bay, an entire section was missing from the newly constructed Three Mile Bridge after a state contractors’ construction barge was torn loose from its moorings and collided with the structure. A crane had fallen on another section of the bridge, and a second barge was carried 10 miles west, where it washed ashore on the 18th hole of the golf course at the Pensacola Country Club.

September 16, 2020 at 2:56 PM EDT

Trees mowed down by Sally’s high winds in Alabama

By Matthew Cappucci

SUMMERDALE, Ala. — A pine forest near this southern Alabama town was decimated by Sally’s high winds. About a quarter of all trees were downed, some snapped by winds alone and others uprooted. Sodden soils made it easier for roots to become dislodged from the saturated grounds. Summerdale is about 16 miles north of Gulf Shores.

The majority of trees fell from east to west, evidence of the strong winds in Sally’s northern eyewall that probably gusted above 85 mph at that location.

Numerous fallen trees impeded traffic across the region, contributing to power outages and in some cases falling on homes and vehicles.

September 16, 2020 at 2:51 PM EDT

Mobile, Ala., braced for impact and flooding, but Sally largely spared the port city

By Ashley Cusick

MOBILE, Ala. — Powerful winds shook this city overnight, and scattered branches covered roadways Wednesday morning. Power was out across much of the city, but most residents seemed thankful that Hurricane Sally had largely spared their neighborhoods — as they ventured out with rakes and gloves to begin picking up the debris.

Daphne Pierce, 54, took a walk with her husband and two dogs to assess the damage in Spring Hill.

“I kind of stayed up all night, and we moved downstairs and slept in our den,” she said. “But it wasn’t bad.”

Down the street from Pierce’s home, a huge tree had fallen across Old Shell Road, blocking the active thoroughfare. Several gashes marked where people had tried to saw through the tree, without success. Soon, two Mobile police officers arrived to clear the way for heavier equipment to tackle the problem.

The tree had missed nearby houses, and Pierce said she was relieved her home had escaped damage.

“We didn’t have any problems,” she said.

In downtown Mobile, plexiglass, felled trees and pieces of roofing material blocked sidewalks, but neither wind nor flooding appeared to have caused substantial damage.

Farther south, boats in the Turner Marina had shredded sails and bent masts. The Mobile Bay was dark but still.

“We got lots and lots of wind, and the gusts were really strong,” said Laurie Shorter, a resident of the Hollinger’s Island community whose home sits directly on the bay.

“But they were saying it would be seven to nine feet of storm surge here, and it wasn’t that bad,” she said.

Water submerged Shorter’s bulkhead, which sits six feet above sea level, she said. Fortunately, her house remained dry.

“I feel relieved,” she said. “I mean, you’re always worried about the other people, where the storm did hit. But this could have been so much worse.”

September 16, 2020 at 2:24 PM EDT

Sally downgraded to tropical storm but severe flood threat continues

By Jason Samenow

At 2 p.m., the National Hurricane Center wrote that Sally had become a tropical storm, its peak winds falling below hurricane criteria. Centered 30 miles north-northeast of Pensacola, it packed winds of 70 mph as it crawled north-northeast at 5 mph. Additional weakening is predicted.

Despite the downward trend in winds, Sally continues to unload tremendous rainfall, and the center headlined “catastrophic and life-threatening flooding” occurring over portions of the Florida Panhandle and Southern Alabama.

In coastal areas, the worst of the rain had exited, but areas in interior southeast Alabama, the Florida Panhandle and southwest Georgia were seeing excessive rainfall with rates exceeding 2 inches per hour in the heaviest downpours. Flash flood warnings had expanded as far north as Dothan, Ala., where radar estimated at least 3 to 6 inches of rain had already fallen, with substantially more on the way.

Although winds were slowly coming down, the center reported a weather sensor in Pensacola recently clocking a gust to 76 mph.

September 16, 2020 at 1:55 PM EDT

Baldwin County, Ala., reports ‘major to catastrophic flooding’

By Matthew Cappucci

GULF SHORES, Ala. — “Major to catastrophic flooding” was occurring in Baldwin County, Ala., where the department of emergency management warned of an “extremely dangerous situation.” The National Weather Service reported numerous water rescues of both people and animals.

“Many area roads have become inundated and impassable,” wrote the National Weather Service in Mobile, Ala.

Baldwin County is the largest in Alabama incorporating areas east of Mobile Bay, including Gulf Shores.

Rainfall rates overnight of nearly four inches per hour brought widespread excessive totals in southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, with a few spots seeing two feet or more.

The Alabama Cooperative Extension Program, a joint collaboration between several universities, warned floating fire ant colonies “can present a potentially serious medical threat.”

Major flooding was reported along the Fish River near Silverhill in Baldwin County. The river was predicted to crest four feet above major flood stage by mid-to-late afternoon. County Road 54 was likely to be flooded, as were homes in the vicinity.

The Styx River near Elsanor, Ala., was also in major flood stage, recording its highest water level in more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the threat of heavy rainfall was shifting northeast. Flash-flood watches blanketed areas from Alabama to the Virginia Tidewater, with a moderate risk of excessive rainfall Thursday.

September 16, 2020 at 1:25 PM EDT

Trees down, buildings damaged in Gulf Shores, Ala.

By Matthew Cappucci

GULF SHORES, Ala. — Wind damage was scattered to widespread here, where numerous trees were downed by the strong easterly winds in the northern eyewall. Many large trees, some 40 feet tall and a foot or more thick, were uprooted. Excessive rainfall made it easier for roots to be pulled out of the soil. Multiple trees were downed on cars.

Light poles were topped all along the Gulf Shores Parkway, some blocking traffic. Police personnel turned drivers around as they approached the bridge over Portage Creek to head to the towns along the shoreline, citing looting as a potential concern.

A few instances of structural damage to buildings were observed, including a wall destroyed at the Sweet Repeats furniture consignment store. Palm fronds littered the roadway.

Water in gullies and culverts on the sides of roadways remained elevated, though it had subsided a bit since the peak of overnight rainfall.

Gas station canopies were destroyed, with road signs strewn about and all traffic lights dark. Cotton Creek had overflowed its banks and was spilling feet of water over Cotton Creek Drive, making the roadway impassible.

September 16, 2020 at 12:46 PM EDT

Hurricane Sally made landfall in same location and on same date as Hurricane Ivan in 2004

By Jason Samenow

On Sept. 16, 2004, Hurricane Ivan made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala. Sixteen years later, so did Hurricane Sally on the same date.

Ivan was a slightly stronger hurricane, coming ashore as a Category 3, with maximum sustained winds of 120 mph. However, it was weakening as it came ashore while Sally was strengthening when it crossed the coast with 105 mph maximum sustained winds.

Hurricane Ivan is perhaps best known for being a prolific tornado producer. It spawned 118 tornadoes across nine different states, the highest known total from a tropical system on record. As it tracked into Virginia, it generated the greatest tornado event in the state’s history, unleashing 38 twisters. Six tornadoes also tracked through Maryland.

Sally is forecast to track south of Virginia and a repeat of the 2004 tornado event is not anticipated, although the southeast part of the state may be brushed by heavy rainfall.

September 16, 2020 at 12:05 PM EDT

Hurricane Sally claims a section of a Pensacola bridge

By Andrew Freedman

Pensacola, Fla., has seen storm surge flooding, more than two feet of rain and hurricane-force wind gusts during the storm. Parts of the city have not fared so well, with water rescues underway, according to reports to the National Weather Service.

One casualty of the storm’s winds appears to be the Three Mile Bridge, which spans Pensacola Bay between Gulf Breeze and Pensacola. It’s not yet clear what caused a section of the bridge to be taken out, with some reports suggesting that a construction crane may have toppled over or that a barge hit the span. However, this damage could also be the result of high winds, which were stronger on the bridge than at more sheltered locations.