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Sally Drops 'Incredible Rainfall Totals' On Alabama And Florida

Floodwaters swamp cars on a street in downtown Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday. Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala., as a Category 2 storm, pushing a surge of ocean water and dumping torrential rainfall.
Gerald Herbert
Floodwaters swamp cars on a street in downtown Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday. Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala., as a Category 2 storm, pushing a surge of ocean water and dumping torrential rainfall.

Updated at 11:17 p.m. ET

Hurricane Sally brought 100-mph winds and the threat of historic flooding to southeastern Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle on Wednesday after making landfall as a Category 2 storm. Some isolated areas in its path could see nearly 3 feet of rain.

"Winds have ripped at buildings, and rising floodwaters forced people to their rooftops for rescue," NPR's Debbie Elliott reported from Gulf Shores, Ala. "The slow-moving storm dumped torrential rainfall ahead of landfall, and a storm surge more than 5 feet sent waves washing through homes in Orange Beach."

As of Wednesday evening, there is one death associated with the storm. The mayor of coastal Orange Beach, Ala., told the Associated Press that one person died and another is missing.

The hurricane made landfall near Gulf Shores, just west of the Florida border, around 5:45 a.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said. Thanks in large part to its slow motion, the storm will bring "catastrophic and life-threatening flooding" to parts of the north-central Gulf Coast, the agency said.

"We've seen some incredible rainfall totals — measured in feet," National Hurricane Center Director Ken Graham said in an online briefing late Wednesday morning. "And we still have some more rain to come."

The storm arrived hours after another hurricane developed in the Atlantic Ocean: Teddy strengthened into hurricane status around 2 a.m. ET. That storm is expected to attain major hurricane status later this week and eventually reach Bermuda.

Sally weakened to a tropical depression Wednesday night. As of 11 p.m. ET, the National Hurricane Center said its center was about 30 miles south-southeast of Montgomery, Ala., and its sustained winds had fallen to 35 mph.

The storm was moving northeast at 9 mph — considerably faster than the 2 mph to 3 mph recorded as the storm crept ashore. The hurricane center said Sally was still "causing torrential rains over eastern Alabama and western Georgia."

As of early Wednesday morning, the storm had already produced up to 18 inches of rain along the coast.

In its wake, Sally has left large pine and oak trees strewn across houses and streets and thousands of people without power. Nearly half a million electricity customers are without service in Alabama and Florida, according to the tracking site .

"Hurricane Sally has been a slow-moving storm, which only adds to some natural delays in restoring power, water and other essential services," Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement issued Wednesday afternoon.

She urged residents to remain at home if possible and refrain from getting in their cars to check on storm damage unless absolutely necessary.

Sally is extending tropical-storm-force winds up to 125 miles from its center.

At 6 a.m. ET, Dauphin Island, Ala., was reporting sustained winds of 81 mph and gusts up to 99 mph. In Florida, the Naval Air Station Pensacola reported 61 mph winds, with gusts up to 86 mph.

On Dauphin Island, charter boat captain Charlie Gray, a longtime resident of Alabama's coast, described Sally's landfall to NPR member station 's Miranda Fulmore:

"All you could hear was rumbling, things crashing and breaking and twisting. You hear metal banging, and wrapping around the palm trees where it's like you took a piece of aluminum foil and wrapped it around your finger."

In Gulf Shores, the damage from Sally is extensive, the National Weather Service said.

"The Gulf State Park Pier was cut in half," the agency added, posting an image of the partially destroyed structure that had just undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation in Gulf Shores. The repairs included extensive use of the Brazilian hardwood ipe — a dense and strong material. The pier had been poised to reopen in mid-September after months of delays.

Long before Sally made landfall, it had soaked and flooded parts of the Gulf Coast as it meandered and dithered, heading first northwest and then north before curling north-northeast. Now, it's bringing the full force of its winds and rains to coastal areas such as Pensacola.

The storm's disastrous effects are expected to include "considerable roof damage to sturdy buildings" and large trees snapped off at their base, the local National Weather Service office said. It warned of "damage accentuated by airborne projectiles. Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks."

A section of the Three Mile Bridge collapsed over Pensacola Bay, according to Santa Rosa County, Fla.'s emergency agency. The bridge was closed Tuesday when it was also struck by a barge.

In Baldwin County, Ala., which includes Gulf Shores, the Magnolia River will exceed its flood stage record, county emergency management director Zach Hood said.

"That's not the only river that will reach historical, astronomical flood stage," Hood warned, saying that Sally will continue to affect the area. He urged people to shelter in place — preferably on high ground.

"This is widespread," Hood added. "Yes, our coast has taken a very devastating hit. But throughout the entire county, we are seeing reports of major debris, we're seeing power lines [downed], we're seeing very dangerous conditions in terms of the weather. These will continue."

Trent Airhart wades through floodwaters after retrieving items from his vehicle in downtown Pensacola, Fla., Wednesday. Hurricane Sally is causing flooding across a wide area of the northern Gulf Coast.
Gerald Herbert / AP
Trent Airhart wades through floodwaters Wednesday after retrieving items from his vehicle in downtown Pensacola. Sally is causing flooding across a wide area of the northern Gulf Coast.

The rain could quickly overwhelm drainage infrastructure: Sally is expected to drop totals of 10 to 20 inches and isolated amounts of 35 inches. The massive amount of water will trigger "moderate to major river flooding," the hurricane center said.

"This will be a long duration event," the National Weather Service office in Mobile, Ala., said on Facebook. "Folks along the coast need to continue to hunker down and shelter this morning."

To that, the most-liked reply came from a reader who said simply, "It can hurry up" — a sentiment shared by many along the Gulf Coast.

The threat of mass flooding prompted Ivey to urge residents and tourists along the Alabama coast to evacuate earlier this week.

In Florida, Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, is under voluntary evacuation orders as are several neighboring counties — a list that grew as Sally took a sharper turn toward the east, and away from Louisiana and Mississippi.

While the hurricane's rain and storm surge are expected to pose the most perilous threat to people and property, Sally's winds intensified in the last 12 hours before landfall, from 80 mph at 7 p.m. Tuesday to 105 mph at landfall.

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala., just west of the Florida border, around 5:45 a.m. ET Wednesday.
Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores around 5:45 a.m. ET Wednesday.

Authorities have warned the hurricane's storm surge could bring from 4 to 7 feet of water in the worst-hit areas. A storm surge warning is in effect from the Alabama/Florida border to the Walton/Bay County line in Florida.

The storm could also spin off tornadoes as it makes its way across the Florida Panhandle, southern Alabama and southwestern Georgia.

Sally is expected to maintain a northeast direction and increase its forward motion a bit into Thursday. But it will still linger over the Southeast, raising the threat of floods through parts of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

"The center of Sally will move across the extreme western Florida Panhandle and southeastern Alabama through early Thursday, and move over central Georgia Thursday afternoon through Thursday night," the hurricane center said.

It has been a record-setting Atlantic storm season, with named systems developing at a rapid pace. Sally is one of five named storms that were being tracked earlier this week — tying a record from September 1971 for the most tropical cyclones at one time, according to senior hurricane specialist Eric Blake of the hurricane center.

Tropical Storm Vicky developed Monday morning, leaving Wilfred as the last entry on meteorologists' list of names for storms in 2020. Yet another disturbance is developing off Africa's coast, meaning officials could soon be forced to use the Greek alphabet to refer to storms.

The last time that happened was in 2005 — a record-breaking year that saw destructive storms such as Katrina, Rita, Dennis and Wilma.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.