Hurricane Sally lumbered ashore near the Florida-Alabama line Wednesday with 165 kilometre per hour winds and very heavy rain, swamping homes and forcing the rescue of hundreds of people as it pushed inland for what could be a slow and disastrous drenching across the Deep South.
Moving at an agonizing five kilometres per hour, or about as fast as a person can walk, the storm made landfall at 4:45 a.m. local time close to Gulf Shores, Ala., about 50 kilometres from Pensacola, Fla. It accelerated to a light jog as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Ala., metropolitan areas encompassing nearly one million people.
By Wednesday afternoon, authorities in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, said at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. More than 40 people trapped by high water were brought to safety within a single hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.
Authorities in Pensacola said 200 National Guard members would arrive Thursday to help. Officials also announced a three-day dusk-to-dawn curfew in the county, where the storm turned some streets into white-capped rivers for a time.
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 110 km/h, 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 seven km/h, concentrating the amount of rain dropped on any one place.
Nearly 400,000 homes and businesses are without power, according to the utility tracker poweroutage.us, as the storm downed power lines and flooded streets and homes.
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.”
More than 61 centimetres of rain was recorded near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and forecasters said some coastal spots could get nearly a metre of rain.
The storm tore loose a barge-mounted construction crane, which then smashed into the new Three Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay, causing a section of the year-old span to collapse, said sheriff’s spokesperson Amber Southard.
Sally also tore away a large section of a newly renovated fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park and knocked out power to a half-million homes and businesses across the region.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said some areas of the state are seeing historic flood levels from Sally and more flooding is expected throughout the day.
Ivey urged people Wednesday to refrain from getting on the roads unless they absolutely have to and said the best thing is for people to stay home.
Rescues in Florida, Alabama
An emergency crew rescued two people on Dauphin Island, Ala., after the hurricane ripped the roof off their home and the rest of the house began to crumble.
“As things started to peel off and fall apart, they got scared and called for assistance,” Mayor Jeff Collier said by phone. He said no one was injured.
In Orange Beach, Ala., winds blew out the walls in one corner of a condominium, exposing the interiors of condos on at least five floors, video posted online showed. Other images showed boats shoved ashore by storm surge.
Orange Beach officials said they received 120 calls after midnight from people whose homes were flooded. At least 50 people in the city were rescued from flooded homes and taken to shelters, Mayor Tony Kennon said.
“We got a few people that we just haven’t been able to get to because the water is so high,” he said. “But they are safe in their homes. As soon as the water recedes, we will rescue them.”
Street lights were knocked out in downtown Mobile, where a stoplight snapped, swinging wildly on its cable. Trees were bent over as the rain blew sideways in the howling wind. In downtown Pensacola, car alarms went off, the flashing lights illuminating the floodwaters surrounding parked cars.
‘I don’t feel safe to leave’
Back in Florida, water was up to the doors of Jordan Muse’s car by sunrise outside the Pensacola hotel where her family took shelter after fleeing their mobile home a few miles away.
The power failed early in the morning, making it too stuffy to sleep. Her 8-year-old son played with toys under the hotel room’s desk as Muse peered out the window, watching rain fly by in sheets.
“The power trucks are the only ones above water, and they’re the biggest,” Muse said. “I can’t believe it got so bad. That’s why we came here.”
WATCH l Sally makes landfall as a Category 2 hurricane:
Michele Lamar-Acuff woke to the thud of a small tree falling against a window of her Pensacola home. Waist-deep water gushed down her street. Above the loud whistling of the wind she heard what sounded like transformers exploding.
“I don’t feel safe to leave,” Lamar-Acuff said from the porch of a neighbour’s house. “I’m just staying put and hoping for the best.”
Last weekend, Sally’s path appeared to have New Orleans in its sights.
So Robert Lambrisky and his husband were caught somewhat off guard when the hurricane shook their door before daybreak and forced rainwater inside their home in Sanders Beach near Pensacola. After sunrise, choppy seawater covered what is normally 50 feet of beach.
“We had some warning, but this was just such a strange storm,” Lambrisky said. “So all of this preparing that you do, when you know the storm is coming, was something we only half did because we were convinced the storm wasn’t going to hit us.”
After dumping rain on the coast Wednesday, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week.
U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week issued emergency declarations for parts of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Speaking Wednesday morning on Fox News, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was also fully engaged in the affected areas.