As intense rain pounds Gulf Coast communities, residents are told to brace for ‘life-threatening’ floods.
Hurricane Sally continued its slow crawl toward land Tuesday afternoon, 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.
Officials in Alabama and Mississippi said Sally could pound the coast with storm surge and enormous amounts of rain. There is also a threat of powerful winds and tornadoes along its path.
Yet forecasters were far less sure about where the storm would ultimately deliver the most damage.
“Is there uncertainty? Absolutely,” said Mike Evans, the deputy director of the Mobile County Emergency Management Agency. “Is the storm changing? It seems to be by the hour.”
Officials 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.
The storm, which had maximum sustained winds of 80 m.p.h. at 1 p.m., is expected to pass southeastern Louisiana and take a northward turn toward the Mississippi coast on Tuesday afternoon. The most recent forecasts showed that the center of the storm was expected to make landfall near Mobile Bay, Ala., likely by Wednesday morning.
“I’m well aware that 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.”
Yet the concern over the storm was fueled by its seemingly fickle nature, as Sally’s projected path and strength has changed significantly in recent days. While southeast Louisiana looked to be in its cross hairs, it now appears as though that state will largely 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 over the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, creeping along between two and three miles per hour. John De Block, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., described the storm as “drifting to the north at the speed of a child in a candy shop.”
A consequence of that slow pace was torrents of heavy rainfall, reaching 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 from Ocean Springs, Miss., which is just east of Biloxi, to Dauphin Island and the Mobile Bay on the southwest Alabama coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters from the center also warned of “extreme life-threatening” flash floods heading into Wednesday.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for an area stretching eastward from the mouth of the Pearl River on the Louisiana-Mississippi border to Navarre, near the tip of the Florida panhandle — a distance of about 200 miles that includes Mississippi’s and Alabama’s entire coastlines.
A tropical storm warning covered the area west of the Pearl River to Grand Isle, La. — including metropolitan New Orleans — and east of Navarre to Indian Pass, Fla.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi warned residents that the state stood to “bear the brunt” of Sally.
“This is the real deal, and it deserves your attention,” Mr. Reeves wrote on Twitter late Monday afternoon.
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 that 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.”
Residents in Mobile 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.”
As Sally nears, Louisiana is still recovering from Hurricane Laura.
Sally was expected to strike the Gulf Coast even as it continues to recover from the effects of Hurricane Laura, which was one of the most powerful storms to pummel the U.S. mainland when it struck Louisiana last month.
Laura’s storm surge inundated a stretch of Louisiana’s western coast, and its winds of up to 150 miles per hour ravaged many communities, particularly in and around Lake Charles, a city of roughly 78,000 people near the Texas border. Roughly half a million people evacuated in advance, many of them heading east, toward New Orleans, for a time finding themselves squarely in the path of Sally.
Laura’s anticipated storm surge of up to 20 feet — billed as potentially “unsurvivable” — turned out to be about 11 feet at most. And by many accounts, Louisiana was more prepared for the storm than it had been for Hurricane Rita in 2005, which became a benchmark storm for a generation.
Still, Laura unleashed misery and ruin, and its wind damage was said to be just as severe as Rita’s. As of late Tuesday, about 50,000 people in the Lake Charles area were still without power, according to a database maintained by Entergy, a large utility that supplies electricity in the area.
The office of Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, said on Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already paid more than $89 million to people affected by Laura, more than two-thirds of it in housing assistance.
Mr. Edwards told residents that Sally would not distract from the work of cleaning up after Laura and restoring electricity and other utilities to the thousands who remained without service.
In the hurricane’s path: An island that’s seen its share of storms.
As Hurricane Sally crawled through the Gulf of Mexico on Monday, it was pummeling a patch of sea south of Dauphin Island, Ala., with sustained winds of 61 miles per hour. And the island was one of the places where the National Hurricane Center had forecast storm surges of four to seven feet.
Dauphin Island has seen its share of big storms since the 1990s. Two back-to-back hurricanes, Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005, destroyed more than 300 homes, for example.
The mayor, Jeff Collier, urged residents in a Facebook post on Monday to evacuate the island’s west end. He said the causeway that connects the island with the mainland, which was temporarily closed in June after a tropical storm caused flooding on the west end, would probably “become impassable at some point.”
Photos and videos posted to social media on Monday showed gray storm clouds looming above Dauphin Island homes sitting on wooden stilts, steps from the Gulf of Mexico.
“You can see clearly that the waves are up and the water’s starting to come over the road a little bit,” Greg Nordstrom, a meteorology instructor at Mississippi State University, said in a video that he made while leaving the island on Monday evening. “So if you’re on Dauphin Island, the time to leave is now.”
In 2012, a Times investigation found that Dauphin Island, which at the time had roughly 1,300 year-round residents, was one of many beachfront communities in the United States where federal subsidies had helped people replace small beach shacks with larger, more valuable homes — often with little consideration of whether it made sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas.
At least $80 million, adjusted for inflation, had gone into patching up Dauphin Island since 1979, or more than $60,000 for every permanent resident, the Times reported. And that did not include payments of $72 million to homeowners from the highly subsidized federal flood insurance program.
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.
In ‘one of the most active seasons on record,’ several other storms are churning in the Atlantic.
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.
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.