This briefing has ended. Click here for live coverage of Hurricane Sally.
Residents of Gulf Coast communities are told to brace for flooding.
Hurricane Sally continued its slow crawl toward land early Wednesday morning, with its outer bands lashing coastal communities with heavy rain and gusty winds as the center of the storm churned over the Gulf of Mexico.
Shifting forecasts for Sally’s path and warnings of devastating flooding have perplexed and unnerved many living on the Gulf Coast, with residents weighing the risks of hunkering down or fleeing before the worst of the storm arrives.
Sally intensified into a Category 2 storm early Wednesday, with maximum sustained winds of 100 m.p.h., but is now expected to largely bypass Louisiana and Mississippi. The most recent forecasts showed that the center of the storm was projected to make landfall close to Pensacola, Fla., near the state’s border with Alabama, around 8 a.m. Wednesday.
On Tuesday evening, residents and local media were posting videos of ripping winds, storm surges and heavy rainfall battering communities including Mobile and Gulf Shores, Ala. Videos from Pensacola Beach, Fla., showed storm surge pushing seawater into residential streets and parks. The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for an area including 1.28 million people along the Gulf Coast in Florida and Alabama.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for an area stretching eastward from Bay St. Louis, Miss., near the Louisiana border, to Navarre, near the tip of the Florida panhandle.
“Those on the Gulf Coast are all too familiar with Mother Nature’s wrath,” Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama said on Tuesday. “We still hope and pray Sally will not bring that type of pain and heartache, but my fellow Alabamians, Hurricane Sally is not to be taken for granted.”
Officials in Alabama and Mississippi urged people living along the coast and in low-lying areas to clear out, taking advantage of the storm’s sluggish speed to avoid being trapped in perilous floodwaters.
Concern over the storm was fueled by its seemingly fickle nature, with Sally’s projected path changing significantly in recent days. While southeast Louisiana looked to be in its cross hairs, it now appears as though that state will evade the worst of the storm.
“Folks, with any tropical storm, the only thing you can predict is that things will change hour by hour,” Ms. Ivey said.
Hurricane Sally moved slowly toward the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, creeping along between 2 and 3 miles per hour. A consequence of that slow pace was torrents of heavy rainfall, which could reach as high as 30 inches in some areas from the Florida panhandle to Mississippi. The rainfall would compound a storm surge that could reach as high as six to nine feet.
Even before the storm shifted toward the Alabama shore, officials there moved to close beaches and urge residents and tourists to leave areas prone to flooding. Ms. Ivey said it appeared that many had heeded the warnings to leave. Officials were trying to convince others reluctant to leave to get out of harm’s way.
“I can tell you from many years of experience and many times passed, I’ve seen streets and neighborhoods quickly fill up with five, six, seven and even more depth of water in a short period of time,” Sam Cochran, the Mobile County sheriff, said during a briefing on Tuesday.
And if residents stay behind, he added, it might be “a couple of days or longer before we can get you out.”
In a changing climate, hurricanes are becoming wetter, and sometimes slower.
Scientists know that climate change has made tropical storms wetter, and there is also evidence that it makes some slower.
On Tuesday, forecasters reported that Hurricane Sally was moving forward at about 2 miles an hour and was not expected to accelerate much as it moved northward in the Gulf of Mexico toward an expected landfall on Wednesday. It was stalling, in effect, as it approached the Mississippi coast.
Sally’s slow movement is leading forecasters to predict a deluge. A slow-moving storm drops more rain over a given area, leading to higher rainfall totals and flooding.
Recent research suggests that global warming — specifically in the Arctic, which is warming much more rapidly than other regions — is playing a role in weakening atmospheric circulation and thus potentially affecting hurricane speed.
Other recent hurricanes have also stalled. A year ago, Dorian crawled over the Bahamas for a day and a half, causing widespread destruction from wind and storm surge.
And Harvey, perhaps the best-known, and most costly, example of stalling, was no longer a hurricane by the time it stalled near Houston in August 2017. It had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but still inundated the city and surrounding communities with four feet or more of rain over several days.
Dispatches from Alabama, where residents are ‘anxious’ as they await Sally.
As Hurricane Sally inched toward the old port city of Mobile, Ala., on Tuesday, its outer rain bands had already begun to dump intense waterfalls of rain. The streets were mostly empty, but many residents had chosen to stay home to ride out a storm that was expected to deposit more than two feet of rain over the next day or so.
Alonzo Johnson, 47, a football coach at a local high school, was sitting on the front porch of the 80-year-old craftsman home where he lives with his family south of downtown. There was nothing to do but watch the rain and see how high it would go. Mr. Johnson said that floodwaters had gone to the bottom of a stop sign across the street in the past. During Katrina, the water had lapped up to the top of his porch, about two feet off the ground.
“We’re anxious,” he said. If the water gets high enough, the family would retreat to the back of the house, which is a bit higher. “We’ll find a safe space where we can get to praying.”
Downtown at a public housing complex called Orange Grove Homes, some residents had already begun to evacuate. Long-term residents knew how bad the flooding could get here: they said that the brick townhomes had been raised up, in some cases several feet, after intense flooding during Katrina.
Sometime before 10 a.m., La Shauna Johnson sent a photo of the ocean that the neighborhood had become during Katrina to her younger cousin, Neisha Minefield, 24, who had just moved into an Orange Grove townhouse a few months ago. Ms. Minefield got the message, and soon Ms. Johnson had arrived in a white Mercedes sedan and a pair of green duck boots. She was getting Ms. Minefield and the children out of there.
Ms. Johnson said she was taking what she could. “I can’t carry my TV or nothing,” she said, taking a glance back into the place. “But it sits high.”
BAYOU LA BATRE, Ala.
The water was already starting to turn roads into rivers Tuesday afternoon in the oyster and fishing town of Bayou La Batre, Ala., as Hurricane Sally remained parked offshore a few miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. Ernest Nelson, 66, had taken refuge under a house raised 10 feet off the ground on concrete pillars. The rain was coming hard.
How Mr. Nelson found himself under this house, and indeed, how the house got built in the first place, was all tangled in the long, painful drama of a changing climate that has irrevocably changed and complicated life along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Nelson, a retired commercial fisherman, had been living more than 300 miles west of Bayou La Batre, in the small Louisiana town of Hackberry. But a few weeks ago, Hurricane Laura roared out of the Gulf and devastated Hackberry, including Mr. Nelson’s home, a small travel trailer right on the water. His sister, Stephenie Bosarge, 63, had driven over in a U-Haul truck to take him to safety just before the storm made landfall.
“You’re looking at the last person to get out of Hackberry,” Mr. Nelson said, grinning under his cap.
Ms. Bosarge brought her older brother back to Bayou La Batre and her elevated home, set just a few yards from the water. There had been a different house on the property before Hurricane Katrina, but Katrina blew it away, along with Ms. Bosarge’s wedding bands and family photos. The Volunteers of America came through town and built her this new house. Katrina also washed away her oyster shop.
Since Katrina, many houses in Bayou La Batre are now raised on stilts, and people have their ways of figuring out what to do with all that space below. You can park a truck or boat, store junk or store tools. Ms. Bosarge turned her place into a pleasant outdoor living room, with a little tiki bar, some porch swings and a stereo system.
And so here they were, brother and sister, hurricane survivors on their porch swings, watching this new slow-moving disaster unfold all around them. They were in good enough spirits, and they planned on evacuating soon and riding out the storm with a relative on higher ground in Grand Bay. Ms. Bosarge joked about how she had never learned to swim, and joked that Mr. Nelson was a bad-news hurricane magnet.
“My son said, ‘Drop him in Texas,’” she said.
But the pair were serious about what has happened to their way of life, and the life of so many other Gulf people. “It is coming to an end,” Ms. Bosarge said. “Baby, I knew that years ago.”
The storms were getting bigger and more intense, they said, and they both blamed climate change. Mr. Nelson, who had worked the water for decades, gave his basis for that belief: “No meteorologist. No college degree. Experience.”
The storm will complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus.
The states that are expected to be hardest hit by Hurricane Sally have already faced some of America’s highest rates of coronavirus infection.
The approaching storm will not make things easier, with Louisiana deciding to close most of its testing sites on Tuesday. Alabama expects testing sites operated by the Department of Public Health to be closed both Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Obviously the Covid public health emergency doesn’t take time off in order for us to deal with the natural disasters that we’ve seen of late,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said on Monday. “So everything we do, we have to be mindful that we’re still doing them in a public health emergency.”
Mississippi has seen a decline in virus cases in recent weeks, but it has had more deaths per capita than any other state over the past seven days. Gov. Tate Reeves said that planning for a hurricane was always complicated, and that “the life of Covid makes it even more challenging.”
Mr. Reeves said he had spoken with Mr. Edwards about Louisiana’s experience of managing the coronavirus during Hurricane Laura, which caused significant damage and forced about 18,000 people into temporary housing.
Several other storms are churning in the Atlantic during an active season.
As Sally threatened the Gulf Coast, three other major storms churned in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Paulette packed winds of 105 miles per hour about 400 miles northeast of Bermuda, and threatened to bring dangerous surf and rip current conditions to Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles through Tuesday night.
Tropical Storm Teddy was gaining strength about 1,000 miles east of the Lesser Antilles, and was projected to become a “large and powerful hurricane” in the coming days.
And Tropical Storm Vicky had maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour over about 500 miles west of Cape Verde, but was not projected to threaten land and was expected to weaken in the coming days.
On Monday, before Tropical Depression Rene dissolved, there were five concurrent named storms in the Atlantic, which has not happened since 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And there are also other unnamed disturbances in the Atlantic.
In May, government scientists accurately predicted the coming hurricane season was “expected to be a busy one,” with as many as 19 named storms. In August, the scientists updated their forecast, saying there could be as many as 25 named storms in “one of the most active seasons on record.”
Tropical Storm Vicky was the 20th named storm of the season. Each year, the World Meteorological Organization maintains and assigns the lists of names for the Atlantic basin.
Arthur, which formed off the coast of Florida in May, was the first named tropical storm, followed by Bertha, which made landfall near Charleston, S.C., later that month, before the official start of the season.
The 21-name list is recycled every six years with male and female names alternating alphabetically. The last name on this season’s list is Wilfred. If forecasters use it, which is likely, they will have to turn to a Greek alphabet system that includes 24 names, beginning with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
Reporting was contributed by Chelsea Brasted, Johnny Diaz, Mike Ives, Rick Rojas, Daniel Victor and Will Wright.
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