Hurricane Sally unleashes flooding along Gulf Coast

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Hurricane Sally unleashes flooding along Gulf Coast

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

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PENSACOLA, Florida (AP) — Hurricane Sally lumbered ashore near the Florida-Alabama line today with 105 mph (165 kph) winds and rain measured in feet, not inches, swamping homes and trapping people in high water as it pushed inland for what could be a slow and disastrous drenching across the Deep South.

Moving at an agonising 3 mph, or about as fast as a person can walk, the storm made landfall at 4:45 am close to Gulf Shores, Alabama, about 30 miles from Pensacola. It accelerated to a light jog as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Alabama, metropolitan areas encompassing nearly one million people.

It cast boats onto land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses. A replica of Christopher Columbus' ship the Nina was missing from the Pensacola waterfront, police said.

Sally tore loose a barge-mounted construction crane, then smashed into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, causing a section of the year-old span to collapse, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a newly renovated fishing pier at Alabama's Gulf State Park.

Emergency crews plucked people from numerous flooded homes. In Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, more than 40 were rescued within a single hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.

By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 70 mph (110 kph), but the worst may be yet to come, with heavy rain expected into Thursday as the storm pushes inland over Alabama and into Georgia. For much of the day, it was moving at just 5 mph (7 kph), concentrating the amount of rain dropped on any one place.

Morgan estimated thousands more will need to flee rising waters in the coming days. County officials urged residents to rely on text messages for contacting family and friends to keep cellphone service open for 911 calls.

"There are entire communities that we're going to have to evacuate," the sheriff said. "It's going to be a tremendous operation over the next several days."

West of Pensacola, power poles leaned halfway over in Perdido Key, Florida, as Joe Mirable arrived at his real estate business to find the two-storey building shattered, its contents scatted on the ground. Digging through the ruins, Mirable pointed out a binder labeled "Hurricane Action Plan."

"I think the professionals got this one wrong," he said before the wind blew away his hat.

More than 2 feet of rain (61 centimetres) was recorded near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and nearly 3 feet (1 metre) of water covered streets in downtown Pensacola, the National Weather Service reported.

"It's not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet," said forecaster David Eversole. "Sally's moving so slowly, so it just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding the area with tropical rain and just powerful winds. It's just a nightmare." National Hurricane Center forecaster Stacy Stewart said the rain will be "catastrophic and life-threatening" over portions of the Gulf Coast. Forecasters predicted 10 to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain, with up to 35 inches (89 centimeters) in some spots.

"Sally has a characteristic that isn't often seen and that's a slow forward speed, and that's going to exacerbate the flooding," said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane centre. He likened the storm's plodding pace to that of Hurricane Harvey, which inundated Houston in 2017.

Sally was the second hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast in less than three weeks and the latest blow in one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever recorded, so frenetic that forecasters have nearly run through the alphabet of storm names with 2 1/2 months still to go.

Hurricane Laura pummeled southwestern Louisiana on August 27. Thousands of people were still without power from that storm, and some were still in shelters.

At the start of the week, Sally was one of a record-tying five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic, strung out like charms on a bracelet.

Far out in the Atlantic, Teddy became a hurricane today, with winds of 100 mph (160 kph). Forecasters said it could reach Category 4 strength before closing in on Bermuda, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Paulette only days ago.

Like the wildfires raging on the West Coast, the onslaught of hurricanes has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing slower, rainier, more powerful and more destructive storms.

Meanwhile, Sally's effects were felt all along the northern Gulf Coast. Low-lying properties in southeastern Louisiana were swamped by the surge. Water covered Mississippi beaches and parts of the highway that runs parallel to them.


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