Ryan W. Miller, Barbara Gauntt and Brian Broom
Published 3:42 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020
KILN, Miss. – Hurricane Sally is creeping closer to the Gulf Coast as the slow-moving storm is expected to bring heavy rains and “historic, life-threatening flooding” from southeastern Louisiana to Florida’s Panhandle, forecasters say.
Sally, which ramped up to a Category 2 storm Monday but has since weakened to Category 1, is forecast to make landfall late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
“It’s going to be a huge rainmaker,” said Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and meteorologist at Colorado State University. “It’s not going to be pretty.”
While forecasters say it’s still too early to determine exactly where Sally will come ashore, its dangers will be felt for miles with hurricane warnings in effect from east of Bay St. Louis, Louisiana, to Navarre, Florida.
“This is going to be historic flooding along with the historic rainfall,” Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Center, said Tuesday. “If people live near rivers, small streams and creeks, they need to evacuate and go somewhere else.”
Sally, crawling at 2 mph by early afternoon Tuesday, was about 60 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi River and 105 miles south of Mobile, Alabama, with winds whipping up to 80 mph.
The Hurricane Center said the storm’s center will continue to move slowly to the northwest and north on Tuesday as it nears the coast of southeastern Louisiana. It will then turn northeast as it comes ashore and continues to trudge across the Southeast later in the week.
“Although little change in strength is forecast until landfall occurs, Sally is still expected to be a dangerous hurricane,” the Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters say Sally could bring 10 to 20 inches of rain from the Florida Panhandle to southeast Mississippi, with some isolated pockets of rain up to 30 inches. The rain along and just inland of the coast could bring “historic life-threatening flash flooding” through Wednesday, the Hurricane Center said.
Up to seven feet of storm surge was also forecast across Alabama’s coastline from the Mississippi border to Florida border, forecasters said.
Isolated tornadoes could also occur Tuesday and Wednesday across portions of the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, according to the Hurricane Center.
As it moves inland, Sally could dump up to a foot of rain along pockets of southeastern Mississippi, southern and central Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas.
President Donald Trump issued emergency declarations for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday. “Be ready and listen to State and Local Leaders!” Trump tweeted.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, along the western part of the Panhandle, which already was being pummeled with rain from Sally’s outer bands.
Outside Pensacola, Quietwater Beach was completely underwater and county public works employees could be seen wading through knee-high water to secure trash cans and other items. The Pensacola Bay Bridge also closed Tuesday morning amid wind and rain, and over the course of the day, it is likely that more and more routes to coastal communities will be cut off.
In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey also issued a state of an emergency closing Alabama’s beaches. The causeway to Dauphin Island, which was already flooding, was closed, and downtown Mobile was nearly deserted. Ivey warned residents living along the Gulf, especially south of Interstate 10 or in low-lying areas, to evacuate if conditions permit.
“This is not worth risking your life,” Ivey said during a news conference Tuesday.
Sally had threatened to batter New Orleans, where thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Laura were staying, but turned east over the past day. Laura devastated much of southwestern Louisiana after it roared ashore as a Category 4 storm, the first major hurricane of the 2020 season.
In Mississippi, Hurricane Katrina was on the minds of some residents preparing for Sally’s deluge.
Sabrina Young of Bay St. Louis was at the Kiln shelter Monday. It was the first of several to open around the region as evacuations of low-lying areas began.
“(The people will) be coming but it will be too late,” she said. “They’ll have the bare necessities. I did that with Katrina – the clothes on our backs and that was it. I don’t want to be in that situation again.”
Others appeared unsure what to do and planned to ride out the storm at home. Kenneth Belcher of Ocean Springs said he’s worried about the storm but has little choice other than to stay at his apartment.
“They say it’s going to be a bad one,” Belcher said. “They said 15, 20, 30 inches are going to fall. We got lucky with (Hurricane) Laura, but this one looks like it’s coming to us.”
The storms are part of a particularly active hurricane season in the Atlantic, with Monday marking the second time ever that forecasters tracked five tropical cyclones simultaneously in the Atlantic basin. None other than Sally were forecast to hit the continental U.S. this week.
Scientists say human-caused climate change has made hurricanes stronger and rainier in recent years with warmer air and water in the oceans. Rising sea levels from climate change also can make storm surge higher and more damaging.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, Desiree Healey of Douglasville, Georgia, was walking her cat, Quasar, on the beach as winds and waves grew Monday afternoon. Healey said she had recently moved to the region.
“I came here looking for work at the casinos. I was dropping off some applications,” she said. “I thought she might enjoy the beach. I was very wrong.”
All the casinos were being evacuated Monday afternoon.
Contributing: Annie Blanks and Kevin Robinson, Pensacola News Journal; Chanukah Christie and Sarah Ann Dueñas, Montgomery Advertiser; Lici Beveridge, Luke Ramseth, Alissa Zhu, Mississippi Clarion Ledger; and The Associated Press