Hurricane Sally, a plodding storm with winds of 85mph,is creeping towards the northern Gulf Coast as forecasters warned of potentially deadly storm surges and flash floods, with the heaviest downpours dumping nearly 2ft of rain.
Forecasters said the storm’s drifting pace makes it difficult to predict where the storm’s eye will make landfall, but they kept nudging the predicted track eastwards, easing fears in New Orleans, which was once in Sally’s crosshairs.
By late morning on Tuesday, hurricane warnings stretched from east of Bay St Louis, Mississippi, to Navarre, Florida, and forecasters said Sally should reach land near the Alabama-Mississippi border by late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
Rainfall of up to 20in was forecast near the coast, with a chance the storm could also spawn tornadoes.
Life-threatening storm surge from Hurricane #Sally is expected from the Mouth of the Mississippi River to the Okaloosa/Walton County Line in the Florida Panhandle. Highest inundation expected along the Alabama coast, including Mobile Bay. https://t.co/IGqyxeC0LO pic.twitter.com/YAIwVflMBb— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 15, 2020
Stacy Stewart, a senior specialist with the National Hurricane Centre, said people should continue to take the storm seriously since “devastating” rainfall is expected in large areas.
“This is going to be historic flooding along with the historic rainfall,” Mr Stewart said. “If people live near rivers, small streams and creeks, they need to evacuate and go somewhere else.”
Alabama governor Kay Ivey urged residents near Mobile Bay and low-lying areas near rivers to evacuate if conditions still permitted a safe escape. The National Hurricane Centre predicted the storm surge along Alabama’s coast, including Mobile Bay, could reach 7ft above ground.
“This is not worth risking your life,” Ms Ivey said during a news conference Tuesday.
The storm was moving at only 2mph late on Tuesday morning, south of Mobile, Alabama, and east of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Hurricane-force winds stretched 45 miles from its centre.
Forecasters expect Sally to move slowly northwards on Tuesday, with the storm’s centre bypassing the coast of south-eastern Louisiana. Forecasters said the storm should remain a Category 1 hurricane, with top winds of 85mph, until it comes ashore.
10 AM CDT Tue, Sep 15 Key Messages for Hurricane #Sally. Visit https://t.co/tW4KeFW0gB for the latest NHC advisories and https://t.co/SiZo8ohZMN for your local forecast updates. @NWSTallahassee @NWSMobile @NWSNewOrleans @NWSJacksonMS pic.twitter.com/A54RZ0je9e— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 15, 2020
After making landfall, Sally is forecast to cause flash floods and minor to moderate river flooding across inland portions of Mississippi, Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas through the rest of the week.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis declared an emergency in the Panhandle’s westernmost counties, which were being pummelled by rain from Sally’s outer bands early on Tuesday. The threat of heavy rain and a storm surge was exacerbated by the storm’s slow movement.
President Donald Trump issued emergency declarations for parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, and tweeted that residents should listen to state and local leaders.
Sally achieved hurricane strength on Monday and quickly intensified to a Category 2 storm with 100mph winds. Its maximum sustained winds dwindled to a Category 1 by early Tuesday, and forecasters did not predict further strengthening.
Monday marked only the second time on record that five tropical cyclones swirled simultaneously in the Atlantic basin. The last time that happened was in 1971.
None of the others are expected to threaten the US this week, if at all, and one was downgraded to a low pressure trough on Monday evening.