Hurricane Sally lumbered ashore near the Florida-Alabama line Wednesday with 165 kilometre per hour winds and very heavy rain, swamping homes and forcing the rescue of hundreds of people as it pushed inland for what could be a slow and disastrous drenching across the Deep South.
Moving at an agonizing five kilometres per hour, or about as fast as a person can walk, the storm made landfall at 4:45 a.m. local close to Gulf Shores, Ala., about 50 kilometres from Pensacola, Fla. It accelerated to a light jog as it battered the Pensacola and Mobile, Ala., metropolitan areas encompassing nearly one million people.
By Wednesday afternoon, authorities in Escambia County, which includes Pensacola, said at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. More than 40 people trapped by high water were brought to safety within a single hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.
The mayor of a coastal Alabama town said Wednesday night that one person had died as a result of Hurricane Sally.
Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach told The Associated Press that the person died Wednesday, and added that one other person is missing. Kennon said no other details would be released immediately.
Authorities in Pensacola said 200 National Guard members would arrive Thursday to help. Officials also announced a three-day dusk-to-dawn curfew in the county, where the storm turned some streets into white-capped rivers for a .
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm. Its maximum sustained winds by Wednesday night had fallen to 75 km/h and the National Weather Service (NWS) said heavy rains were spreading to the north and east, into eastern Alabama and western Georgia.
At least eight waterways in south Alabama and the Florida Panhandle were expected to hit their major flood levels by Thursday. Some of the crests could break records, submerge bridges and flood some homes, the NWS warned.
The storm cast boats onto land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than a 540,000 homes and businesses.
WATCH | Hurricane Sally slams into U.S. Gulf Coast:
Morgan estimated thousands more will need to flee rising waters in the coming days. County officials urged residents to rely on text messages for contacting family and friends to keep cellphone service open for 911 calls.
“There are entire communities that we’re going to have to evacuate,” the sheriff said. “It’s going to be a tremendous operation over the next several days.”
The NWS said nearly three feet of water covered the streets in downtown Pensacola, and some two feet of rain had fallen near Naval Air Station Pensacola.
“It’s not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet,” said forecaster David Eversole.
The storm 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, said sheriff’s spokesperson Amber Southard.
Sally also tore away a large section of a newly renovated fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf State Park.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey urged people Wednesday to refrain from getting on the roads unless they absolutely have to and said the best thing is for people to stay home.
Rescues in Florida, Alabama
An emergency crew rescued two people on Dauphin Island, Ala., after the hurricane ripped the roof off their home and the rest of the house began to crumble.
“As things started to peel off and fall apart, they got scared and called for assistance,” Mayor Jeff Collier said by phone. He said no one was injured.
In Orange Beach, Ala., winds blew out the walls in one corner of a condominium, exposing the interiors of condos on at least five floors, video posted online showed. Other images showed boats shoved ashore by storm surge.
WATCH l Sally makes landfall as a Category 2 hurricane:
Orange Beach officials said they received 120 calls after midnight from people whose homes were flooded. At least 50 people in the city were rescued from flooded homes and taken to shelters, Mayor Tony Kennon said.
“We got a few people that we just haven’t been able to get to because the water is so high,” he said. “But they are safe in their homes. As soon as the water recedes, we will rescue them.”
Street lights were knocked out in downtown Mobile, where a stoplight snapped, swinging wildly on its cable. Trees were bent over as the rain blew sideways in the howling wind. In downtown Pensacola, car alarms went off, the flashing lights illuminating the floodwaters surrounding parked cars.
Michele Lamar-Acuff woke to the thud of a small tree falling against a window of her Pensacola home. Waist-deep water gushed down her street. Above the loud whistling of the wind she heard what sounded like transformers exploding.
“I don’t feel safe to leave,” Lamar-Acuff said from the porch of a neighbour’s house. “I’m just staying put and hoping for the best.”
After dumping rain on the coast Wednesday, Sally was forecast to bring heavy downpours to Georgia and the Carolinas later in the week.
Meanwhile, far out in the Atlantic, Teddy became a hurricane Wednesday with winds of 160 km/h. Forecasters said it could reach Category 4 strength before closing in on Bermuda, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Paulette only days ago.