Hurricane Sally uprooted trees, flooded streets, and cut off power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses when the storm brought “historic and catastrophic” flooding to the Alabama-Florida coast, the National Hurricane Center said.
Sally, who made landfall early Wednesday at Gulf Shores, Alabama as a Category 2 storm, was reduced to a tropical storm in the afternoon as maximum sustained winds slowed to 70 miles per hour, slightly below the threshold for a hurricane.
Some parts of the Gulf Coast have already been inundated with over 18 inches of rain in the past 24 hours, with more precipitation expected even if the storm is slow blowing, the NHC said.
The wind was howling fast enough to drop a tractor trailer on its side as it was being driven down an Alabama highway, according to video published by CBS News.
The coastal town of Pensacola, Florida, suffered up to five feet of flooding, and travel was cut short by damaged roads and bridges. More than 500,000 homes and businesses across the area were without power when the storm toppled stately oak trees and ripped electrical cables from poles.
The storm was moving at a slow pace of 5 mph toward the Alabama-Florida border, but it was predicted to get faster, the NHC said.
“The rain is what stands out about this one: it’s unreal,” said Cavin Hollyhand, 50, who left his home on a barrier island and took shelter in Mobile, Alabama, where he examined the damage on Wednesday.
Some remote areas can see up to three feet of rain before Sally finishes, the NHC said.
On landfall in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Sally’s winds clocked at 165 mph. Along the coast, piers were torn away by the storm surge and wind.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey told residents not to go outside to check damage unless necessary, and to stay clear of power lines and fallen trees.
“We’ve had high winds for a long time,” said Grant Saltz, 38, pausing to clear debris outside his mobile restaurant. “Instead of a few hours, we got it 12 hours.”
In Pensacola, gusts of wind were clocked at 125 mph, and images on social media showed major flooding. A witness also reported hailstorms in the city, and the NHC warned of possible tornadoes.
Pensacola city police told residents not to drive around looking for damage from high winds.
“We see a lot of ‘viewers’,” the department wrote on Twitter. ‘It slows down our progress. Please stay at home! “
Sally is the 18th storm in the Atlantic Ocean this year and the eighth tropical storm or hurricane force to hit the United States. There are three so-called storms in the Atlantic Ocean, none of which pose a threat to the United States.
“We only have one name left,” said Jim Foerster, chief meteorologist at DTN, a provider of energy, agricultural and weather data, referring to the procedure for naming storms. “That’s going to happen here soon, Wilfred, and then we’ll go to the Greek alphabet.”
According to researchers at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hurricanes have increased in intensity and destructiveness since the 1980s due to global warming. Climate change is also a factor in the increasing frequency of record-breaking wildfires ravaging the western United States, scientists say.
Sally’s damage is expected to be $ 2 billion to $ 3 billion ($ A2.7 billion to $ A4.1 billion), said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage. That estimate could increase if the heaviest rainfall occurs over land, Mr Watson said.
As the storm moved eastward and inland, ports on the western Gulf Coast were reopened for travel, and energy companies began to return crews to offshore oil platforms.
Sally closed more than a quarter of the US Gulf of Mexico’s offshore oil and gas production. Two coastal oil refineries shut down or slowed operations, adding to last month’s existing Hurricane Laura shutdown and pandemic-related demand losses.