Hurricane Sally Threatens Gulf Coast With a Slow Drenching

WAVELAND, Miss. (AP) -
Storm surge floods a parking lot in Pensacola Beach, Fla., Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Tony Giberson/Pensacola News Journal via AP)

Hurricane Sally, one of a record-tying five storms churning simultaneously in the Atlantic, closed in on the Gulf Coast on Monday with rapidly strengthening winds of at least 100 mph (161 kph) and the potential for up to 2 feet (0.6 meters) of rain that could bring severe flooding.

The storm was on a track to brush by the southeastern tip of Louisiana and then blow ashore late Tuesday or early Wednesday near the Mississippi-Alabama state line for what could be a long, slow and ruinous drenching.

Storm-weary Gulf Coast residents rushed to buy bottled water and other supplies ahead of the hurricane, which powered up to a Category 2 in the afternoon, with further strengthening expected.

Sally has lots of company during what has become one of the busiest hurricane seasons in history — so busy that forecasters have almost run through the alphabet of names with 2 1/2 months still to go.

For only the second time on record, forecasters said, five tropical cyclones were swirling simultaneously in the Atlantic basin. The last time that happened was in 1971.

In addition to Sally were Hurricane Paulette, which passed over a well-fortified Bermuda on Monday and was expected to peel harmlessly out into the North Atlantic, and Tropical Storms Rene, Teddy and Vicky, all of them out at sea and unlikely to threaten land this week, if at all.

As of late afternoon, Sally was about 145 miles (230 kilometers) southeast of Biloxi, Mississippi, moving at 6 mph (9 kph).

Sally’s sluggish pace could give it more time to drench the Mississippi Delta with rain and push storm surge ashore.

People in New Orleans watched the storm’s track intently. A more easterly course could bring torrential rain and damaging winds to Mississippi. A more westerly track would pose another test for the low-lying city, where heavy rains have to be pumped out through a century-old drainage system.

Even with a push toward the east, New Orleans, which is on Lake Pontchartain, will be in the storm surge area, said University of Miami hurricane researcher Brian McNoldy. He said New Orleans “should be very concerned in terms of track.”

The National Hurricane Center forecast storm surges of up to 11 feet (3.4 meters), including 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 meters) in Lake Pontchartrain and 6 feet in downtown Mobile, Alabama.

In eastern New Orleans, drainage canals were lowered in anticipation of torrential rains, Mayor LaToya Cantrell said. New Orleans police went on 12-hour shifts, and rescue boats, barricades, backup generators and other equipment were readied, Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said.

In coastal Mississippi, water spilled onto roads, lawns and docks well before the storm’s arrival. Sally was expected to bring a surge of 10 feet or more.

The town of Kiln, Mississippi, where many homes sit high on stilts along the Jourdan River and its tributaries, was under a mandatory evacuation order, and it appeared most residents obeyed. Many of them moved their cars and boats to higher ground before clearing out.

On Aug. 27, Hurricane Laura blow ashore in southwestern Louisiana along the Texas line, well west of New Orleans, tearing off roofs and leaving large parts of the city of Lake Charles uninhabitable. The storm was blamed for 32 deaths in the two states, the vast majority of them in Louisiana.

More than 2,000 evacuees from Hurricane Laura remain sheltered in Louisiana, most of them in New Orleans-area hotels, Gov. John Bel Edwards said.

The extraordinarily busy hurricane season — like the catastrophic wildfire season on the West Coast — has focused attention on the role of climate change.

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves said Sally could dump up to 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain on the southern part of the state. Shelters opened, but officials urged people who are evacuating to stay with friends or relatives or in hotels, if possible, because of the coronavirus.

People in shelters will be required to wear masks and other protective equipment, authorities said.

“Planning for a Cat 1 or Cat 2 hurricane is always complicated,” Reeves said. “Planning for it during 2020 and the life of COVID makes it even more challenging.”

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey closed beaches and called for evacuations.