Hurricane Sally left a trail of chaos and damage on the US Gulf coast on Wednesday, with pounding rain and winds whipping above 100mph as the huge category 2 storm system ground ashore at just 2mph – a turtle’s walking pace.
The storm, which has killed at least one person, later accelerated to 3mph and then 5mph as it battered the metropolitan areas of Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama, encompassing nearly a million people.
The US National Hurricane Center called the flooding on the Alabama-Florida coastline “historic and catastrophic”. The death occured in Orange Beach, Alabama, Mayor Tony Kennon told the Associated Press, but more details were not immediately available.
The storm cast boats on to land or sank them at the dock, flattened palm trees, peeled away roofs, blew down signs and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses. A replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship the Niña that had been docked at the Pensacola waterfront was missing, police said.
Sally 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, authorities said. The storm also ripped away a large section of a fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf state park on the very day a ribbon-cutting had been scheduled following a $2.4m renovation.
By the afternoon, authorities in Escambia county said at least 377 people had been rescued from flooded areas. More than 40 people trapped by high water were brought to safety within an hour, including a family of four found in a tree, Sheriff David Morgan said.
Authorities in Pensacola said 200 national guard members would arrive on Thursday to help. Officials also announced a three-day dusk-to-dawn curfew in the county, where the storm turned some Pensacola streets into rivers for a time. Water rushed down some streets like river rapids, forming whitecaps as it slapped against buildings and rose above the tires on cars.
Emergency crews plucked people from flooded homes and coast guard helicopters buzzed the disaster zone looking for people in trouble.
Before sunrise, water was up to the doors of Jordan Muse’s car outside the Pensacola hotel, where her family took shelter after fleeing their mobile home.
The power failed early in the morning, making it too stuffy to sleep. Her eight-year-old son played with toys underneath the hotel room desk as Muse peered out the window, watching rain fly by in sheets.
“The power trucks are the only ones above water, and they’re the biggest,” Muse said, adding: “I can’t believe it got so bad.”
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 neighbor’s house. “I’m just staying put and hoping for the best.”
Sally also tore away a large section of a newly renovated fishing pier at Alabama’s Gulf state park and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses across the region.
By early afternoon, Sally had weakened into a tropical storm, with winds down to 70mph, but the worst may be yet come, with heavy rain expected into Thursday as the storm pushes inland over Alabama and into Georgia.
Like the wildfires raging on the west coast, the onslaught of hurricanes this season has once again focused attention on the climate crisis, which scientists say is causing slower, rainier, more powerful and more destructive storms.
The storm’s eye wall, with winds topping 105mph, reached land near Gulf Shores, Alabama, at 4.45am local time on Wednesday.
The storm pushed a surge of ocean water on to the coast. In Mobile Bay, just next to Gulf Shores, five rivers drain into the inlet and the authorities were warning of potentially devastating flooding to come.
Residents of nearby Orange Beach, Alabama, reported extensive damage and flooding.
In daylight hours on Wednesday, the water was swamping homes and trapping some people in high water.
Nearly three feet of flooding covered streets in downtown Pensacola.
“It’s not common that you start measuring rainfall in feet,” said a National Weather Service forecaster, David Eversole, in Mobile.
“Sally’s moving so slowly, so it just keeps pounding and pounding and pounding the area with tropical rain and just powerful winds. It’s just a nightmare.”
It was the second hurricane to hit the Gulf coast in less than three weeks and the latest blow in one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever recorded.
At the start of the week, Sally was one of a record-tying five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic, strung out like charms on a bracelet.
Damage from Sally is expected to reach $2bn to $3bn, said Chuck Watson of Enki Research, which tracks tropical storms and models the cost of their damage. That estimate could rise if the heaviest rainfall happens over land, Watson said.