Hurricane Sally has passed, but threats remain as river flooding likely still to come
Published 7:03 am Thursday, September 17, 2020
Rivers swollen by Hurricane Sally’s rains threatened more misery for parts of the Florida Panhandle and south Alabama on Thursday, even as the storm’s remnants were forecast to dump up to a foot of rain and spread the threat of flooding to Georgia and the Carolinas.
Coastal residents, meanwhile, looked to begin the recovery from a storm that turned streets into rivers, ripped roofs off buildings, knocked out power to hundreds of thousands and killed at least one person.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned residents and visitors in flooded areas that they would need to remain vigilant as water from the hurricane subsides, because heavy rains to the north were expected to cause flooding in Panhandle rivers in coming days.
“So this is kind of the initial salvo, but there is going to be more that you’re going to have to contend with,” DeSantis said.
At least one death was blamed on the hurricane. Orange Beach, Alabama, Mayor Tony Kennon told The Associated Press one person in the popular vacation spot died and another was missing as a result of the storm. He said he couldn’t immediately release details.
Sally blew ashore near Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Wednesday morning as a major hurricane with 105 mph (165 kph) winds. It moved slowly, exacerbating the heavy rains’ effects. More than 2 feet (61 centimeters) fell near Naval Air Station Pensacola, and nearly 3 feet (1 meter) of water covered streets in downtown Pensacola, the National Weather Service reported.
Some Pensacola streets looked like rivers with whitecaps at times. The waters swamped parked cars before receding.
A replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship the Nina was missing from where it was docked at the Pensacola waterfront, police said. The ship was later seen run aground in downtown Pensacola, Pensacola News Journal reported.
The storm was a nerve-racking experience for University of West Florida student Brooke Shelter. She was wide awake Wednesday morning as strong winds and rainfall battered her home, marking her first experience with a hurricane. “The damage around my home is pretty minor, for which I am thankful for,” Shelter said. “However, it is so sad seeing how flooded downtown is.”
Sally weakened to a tropical depression late Wednesday and picked up speed. By early Thursday, it was producing torrential rains over eastern Alabama and western and central Georgia. Forecasters say tornadoes are possible Thursday across southern Georgia and northern Florida.
More than 22,000 homes and businesses in Georgia were without power by early Thursday morning, according to the poweroutages.us website. News outlets reported some trees were toppled in Georgia. In Clayton County, fire officials warned residents to avoid areas where power lines had fallen.
The National Hurricane Center said the system was moving through southeast Alabama, would cross over central Georgia and reach South Carolina on Thursday night. Flash flooding and river flooding was possible in each state. Forecasts say up to 1 foot (30 centimeters) of rain is possible in some spots.
In Orange Beach, Kennon said the damage was worse than that from Hurricane Ivan, which hit 16 years to the day earlier. In a Facebook briefing, Kennon said distribution points would be established Thursday for water, ice and tarps.
“It was an unbelievably freaky right turn of a storm that none of us ever expected,” Kennon said of Sally, which once appeared to have New Orleans in its sights.
Well over a half-million homes and businesses were without electricity in Alabama and Florida, according to poweroutages.us. Many faced extended time without power. “We don’t want to sugar coat this; we’re in it for the long haul,” one utility posted on social media.
At least eight waterways in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were expected to hit major flood stage by Thursday. Some of the crests could break records, submerge bridges and flood some homes, the National Weather Service warned. Included in the warnings were the Styx and Fish rivers, Murder Creek and Big Escambia Creek. In Florida, major crests were expected on the Perdido, Blackwater, Shoal and Yellow rivers, forecasters said.
Brewton, Alabama, a city of about 5,200, can expect moderate to major flooding, said meteorologist Steve Miller of the National Weather Service office in Mobile. Silverhill, a town of about 1,200, was threatened by the Fish River, which had crested, and Seminole, an Alabama village on the Florida state line, by the still rising Styx River, Miller said.
As a hurricane, Sally 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, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park on the very day a ribbon-cutting had been scheduled following a $2.4 million renovation.
Like the wildfires raging on the West Coast, the onslaught of hurricanes has focused attention on climate change, which scientists say is causing slower, rainier, more powerful and more destructive storms.
Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center was tracking two other Atlantic storms. Hurricane Teddy that strengthened to a Category 2 hurricane early Thursday with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph.
The storm was located early Thursday about 625 miles (1,006 kilometers) east-northeast of The Lesser Antilles. Teddy was moving toward the northwest at about 12 mph (19 kph), the general motion it is expected to continue through the weekend.
Additional strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days; Teddy could become a major hurricane Thursday night or Friday, the hurricane center said.
Tropical Storm Vicky is expected to dissipate in the Atlantic in the coming days.