PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — Hurricane Sally blasted ashore Wednesday near Gulf Shores, Alabama, as a Category 2 storm, shoving a surge of ocean water onto the coast and hurling torrential rain that forecasters said would cause dangerous flooding from the Florida Panhandle to Mississippi and well inland in the days ahead.
Moving at an agonizingly slow 3 mph, the center of the hurricane made landfall at 4:45 a.m. local time with top winds of 105 mph (165 kmh), the National Hurricane Center said. Sally’s northern eyewall had raked the Gulf Coast with hurricane-force winds and rain from Pensacola Beach, Florida, westward to Dauphin Island, Alabama, for hours before its center finally hit land.
Trees were bending over and flailing around as the rain blew sideways in the howling winds. In downtown Pensacola, car alarms were triggered, setting off honking horns and flashing lights that illuminated floodwaters up to the bumpers of parked cars. Street lights were snuffed out in downtown Mobile, Alabama, where a stoplight snapped, swinging wildly on its cable.
Nearly 500,000 homes and businesses had lost electricity by early Wednesday, according to the poweroutage.us site. A curfew had been called in Gulf Shores due to life-threatening conditions hours before landfall. In the Panhandle’s Escambia County, Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Chip Simmons vowed to keep deputies out helping residents as long as physically possible. The county includes Pensacola, one of the largest cities on the Gulf Coast.
“The sheriff’s office will be there until we can no longer safely be out there, and then and only then will we pull our deputies in,” Simmons said at a storm briefing late Tuesday.
This for a storm that, during the weekend, appeared to be headed for New Orleans. “Obviously this shows what we’ve known for a long time with storms – they are unpredictable,” Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson IV said.
Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the hurricane center, told The Associated Press said the rainfall will be “catastrophic and life threatening” over portions of the Gulf Coast, Florida panhandle and southeastern Alabama.
The storm’s top sustained winds had dropped to 81 mph (130 kph) just over an hour after it struck land. Forecasters warned that heavy rainfall would continue into Thursday as the storm moved inland over Alabama and into central Georgia, likely causing serious flash flooding and minor to moderate river flooding far from the coast.
Sally was a rare storm that could make history, said Ed Rappaport, deputy director of the hurricane center.
“Sally has a characteristic that isn’t often seen and that’s a slow forward speed and that’s going to exacerbate the flooding,” Rappaport told the AP.
He likened the storm’s slow progression to that of Hurricane Harvey, which swamped Houston in 2017. Up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain could fall in some spots, and “that would be record-setting in some locations,” Rappaport said in an interview Tuesday night.