PENSACOLA, Fla. – Massive National Guard trucks navigated subdivisions engulfed by raging flooding. Hundreds of people were rescued from flooded homes and cars. And on a suburban street, a family of four was found glued to a tree when the dark brown rainwater released by Hurricane Sally early Wednesday swirled below.
Through the streets of Pensacola the water gushes out like a river, and the flood at some point reaches higher than 5 meters. Part of a larger bridge spanning the bay was wiped out. And more than 400 people were rescued from all over Escambia County, which includes the city of Pensacola.
Sally, a stubborn storm that plunged as slowly as 2 miles per hour across the Gulf of Mexico for two days, slammed into Florida and the Alabama coast with an unexpected rage. The storm had been unpredictable from the beginning and developed repeatedly in recent days in its expected path and strength. As it approached landing Wednesday morning, it escalated to a Category 2 hurricane and suddenly turned east, hitting the Florida coast.
“I think many of us hit ourselves the first thing this morning,” said David Morgan, the sheriff of Escambia County, referring to forecasts that caused the storm to hit Alabama and the Mississippi. Instead, it released “devastating effects” on the area, with floods expected to reach near-record levels.
Sally was largely defined by her slow pace, as she camped beyond the waters of the Gulf warmer than usual by climate change and pulled wearily towards the shore. As forecasters feared, the storm maintained its wind speed as it crossed land, leaving residents to defeat, while 105 km / h winds tore roofs from homes, snatched trees, deluded streets and left hundreds of thousands of people without power.
The Pensacola area had already seen more than 2 feet of rain from the storm this week before it landed, and meteorologists said up to 35 inches could fall in coastal communities. Officials said the region also faced the threat of river flooding, particularly on the rivers Perdido and Escambia.
Sally landed around noon. 5 in the morning centrally across Gulf Shores, Ala. He weakened to a tropical depression after passing the Florida Panhandle and returning to Alabama. But its flood was not expected to give up soon; the heavy rain of the storm stretched into western Georgia from Wednesday night and it continued to crawl northeast at about 9 km / h
Parking lots in both states looked like ponds, and hurricane force winds continued to hit homes and businesses.
In Pensacola, the largest city near the Florida and Alabama state line, conditions made it difficult to immediately assess the extent of the devastation, but it soon became clear that Sally was standing among the most destructive storms to hit that part of coast in recent years. Mayor Tony Kennon of Orange Beach, Ala., Said one person had died as a result of the storm.
Janice P. Gilley, the Escambia County administrator, said during a briefing that local officials have asked for state and federal assistance. “We have requested more assets,” she said. “We have requested more staff.”
As the sun began to peek through the clouds, videos from residents and local media showed images of homes that had been torn apart by the howling winds, both torn from their moorings and power lines that had been knocked down in many cities. According to the National Weather Service, a casino barge near the Code in Ala broke loose due to strong winds and storm surge and slammed into a dock.
Hurricane Sally hit on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Ivan, a Category 3 storm that dumped about 16 inches of rain on Pensacola and was among the most powerful to hit the region.
“Man, it was just read,” said Tim Booth, a semi-truck driver, about Sally as he chopped down a spruce that fell outside his home in Loxley, a town in Alabama off Mobile Bay. “It felt like Ivan.”
He, along with his wife and the 19-year-old son, had spent a scary night at home, a single wide trailer as it was buffet of winds that were far more powerful than they had expected. “We really started to feel it after midnight,” he said.
The city of Mobile, which had largely shut down while waiting for the storm, saw high gusts of wind that caused the Renaissance Mobile Riverview Plaza Hotel, a high-rise building, to sway and shake as if it were in an earthquake. Outside, spilled debris from damaged buildings cluttered walkways, including large panels that had flown over a serviced overhang.
On Interstate 65, a few drivers crossed the high twin-span bridge over the Mobile River. Across the area, the roads were almost impassable by branches and debris. On Alabama State Route 59, which goes south to the Gulf Shores, northbound lanes were cut off by large trees, leaving motorists to drive on the other side of the highway.
Officials urged residents of the area to stay home if they were safe there and described an unstable and dangerous landscape throughout the region. Officials said the storm had destroyed part of the Three-Mile Bridge over Pensacola Bay.
Elsewhere along the Gulf Coast there was some relief. For several days, the storm had avoided a wide stretch of coast as residents saw its expected path change significantly with each forecast.
The storm’s slow speed and capriciousness are partly attributed to climate change, which, according to researchers, has made hurricanes wetter. When the atmosphere heats up, it can hold more moisture. But there is evidence that it could also slow them down, allowing the storms to bomb the areas they hit with heavy rain and wind for extended periods of time, as happened with Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The storm stopped over southeast Texas. and generated as much as 60 inches of rain over five days.
In 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette set a record when it fell 43 inches of rain in Alvin, Texas, over a single day.
This hurricane season has been among the most active on record; with 20 named storms, the National Hurricane Center quickly runs out of alphabet letters for subsequent storms.
On Monday, before tropical depression Rene dissolved, there were five simultaneous named storms in the Atlantic, which has not happened since 1971, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On the coast of Florida, Sally’s hard east-facing Joe Hernandez worried so much that he stopped overnight as the storm blew through his suburbs of Cantonment, just outside Pensacola.
The wind destroyed his back fence and his shed, and the water climbed to waist height on some of the nearby streets, he said. The streets were also transformed into Venetian canals, only these were flanked by wide green suburban lawns and beautiful brick houses with basketball goals and two-car garages.
It could have been surreal for a beginner, but not for Mr. Hernandez. The area, he said, had seen its share of floods in its 18 years here, sometimes after hurricanes, but also sometimes after a normal storm.
Soon, the Florida National Guard bumped into big wheels with open back wagons, bouncing after people who had been trapped. Some of them started searching for people for rescue already at. 7, when the wind was still roaring. They led people to safety who could no longer drive down their streets. They rescued motorists stranded in the deceptively deep floodwaters.
Late in the afternoon, Hernandez and his wife, Tammy Hurd, 53, were rescued from their blue SUV.
They had driven to a house nearby to examine a couple in their 70s. Then they made the decision to try to get down Bristol Park Road. Soon, their SUV was submerged in floodwaters up to the headlights.
A National Guard truck found them and soon they were roaring through the water to safety.
It was not a rescue after life or death; more like a rescue from a deep inconvenience. Neighbors stood in their driveways or on the high ground of their lawns and watched.
The truck made a big wake, pushing some of the water towards the houses and furious some who saw the waves rolling towards them. A man stepped out of his garage and handed to the guards.
“Slow down!” he yelled.
Soon Mr Hernandez and Mrs Hurd were home. Sir. Hernandez, a veteran of the Air Force, thanked the guards vigorously. He was grateful to be safe and out of the storm. Still, he worried about the SUV he left stranded in the middle of Bristol Park Road.
“It’s the only car I have,” he said. “I do not know what to do.”
Richard Fausset reported from Pensacola, Cantonment, Fla., Mobile, Ala., and Loxley, Ala., Rick Rojas from Atlanta, and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs from New York. Daniel Victor contributed reporting from London, Will Wright from Jersey City, NJ and Johnny Diaz from New York.