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Hurricane Sally is crawling toward the Gulf Coast, and that could mean heavy flooding and lengthy, punishing storm surge

flood damage

Gulfport, Mississippi (CNN) Hurricane Sally is creeping so slowly toward the US Gulf Coast, it’s set to repeatedly punish areas with heavy rain and storm surge before and after an expected Wednesday landfall — threatening major flooding in Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.

“With the storm moving this slowly … we could historic flooding” across parts of those states, CNN meteorologist Jennifer Gray said Tuesday afternoon.

The center of Sally — a Category 1 storm with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph — was moving over the Gulf of Mexico and toward coastal Mississippi at only 2 mph late Tuesday morning.

Sally’s center may not move over land until Wednesday morning, perhaps near the Mississippi-Alabama state line, forecasters said. Its slow movement should allow huge amounts of rain to pile up even ahead of landfall.

A hurricane warning is in effect from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, through just east of Pensacola, Florida — including all of coastal Alabama and the city of Mobile.

Hurricane conditions could arrive in the warning area starting Tuesday afternoon or night, forecasters say. Outer bands already were hitting parts of coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle with rain.

Tornadoes also are possible through Wednesday, especially in parts of southern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, forecasters say.

Katrina survivor prepares for Sally

As the storm approached Monday, Mississippian Mike Taylor prepared by filling and placing sandbags around his house in Long Beach, near Gulfport, to keep water out.

“Just got to prepare. That’s all we can do,” Taylor said.

Taylor lost his home 15 years ago during Hurricane Katrina. It sat just a few blocks from the beachfront, he said. Taylor evacuated as the storm surge moved closer, and when he returned only a slab was left. One of the few belongings he found in the debris was a toy truck that he still keeps in his house.

Taylor isn’t nervous about Hurricane Sally because he believes he has already experienced a worse storm, he said.

His 8-year-old nephew is not as confident. As he helped Taylor fill sandbags, he told CNN he’s worried.

“I’m very nervous. The storm is coming at night and the wind can blow your house down,” the boy said.

A lifelong Gulf Coast resident, 35-year-old Robert Higdon also filled sandbags in the Gulfport area. He said he is not terribly concerned about this hurricane but knows it’s best to “prepare for the unexpected.”

Gulf of Mexico storms can quickly intensify, he said, so he always assumes the hurricane is going to be a little worse than the official forecast predictions.

“I’d rather be prepared for the unexpected,” Higdon said. “If it’s a Category 2 or below we just bunker down. A lot of people are willing to ride it out.”

Storm threats

Some of the storm’s main threats, forecasters say:

• Dangerous storm surge, including 4 to 7 feet from the Mississippi-Alabama line to the Alabama-Florida line. Storm surge of 3 to 5 feet also is possible from the Louisiana-Mississippi line to the Mississippi-Alabama line, forecaster said.

The storm’s sluggishness could mean lengthy surges — perhaps multiple high-tide periods over 36 hours.

“You can just imagine the saltwater that’s going to push in, as well as the freshwater coming down in the form of rain,” Gray said.

• Heavy rain and dangerous flash flooding. About 10 to 30 inches of rain are possible by storm’s end in southeastern Mississippi, southern Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle.

Flash flooding is possible even well inland, forecasters say. About 4 to 12 inches of rain could fall in parts of central Alabama, northern Georgia and the western Carolinas though Saturday.

• Strong winds. Sally’s slow pace means areas where the storm crosses land may experience winds of at least tropical-storm strength (39 mph and higher) for more than 30 hours, including hurricane-force winds.

Scientists believe climate change is influencing hurricanes and making their impacts worse, and Sally looks to be checking all their boxes — including its slow forward speed.

Residents and visitors get ready in Alabama

In Bayou La Batre, a coastal Alabama town just southwest of Mobile, Ian Fields on Monday secured his boat on the bayou where he and his family plan to ride out the storm.

“We’ve got plenty of tie lines out. That’s about as prepared as we are,” he told CNN affiliate WALA.

Fields has ridden out past storms, though he has a backup plan just in case his family needs to leave this time, he said.

“I’m just waiting for it to come and go,” he told the station.

Jerry Gunderson cut short his vacation on Alabama’s Dauphin Island because of Sally, he told WALA. Still many hours from landfall, the storm was also complicating his evacuation.

“We had booked a home to go to in Mobile, and they just called and said that a tree fell through the house, so right now we’re trying to find other accommodations,” he said.

Evacuations ordered along the coast

The governors of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi have requested emergency federal assistance ahead of the storm and each has declared a state of emergency. Mandatory evacuations have been announced along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Residents in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, St. Charles Parish and parts of Jefferson Parish have been told to evacuate as flooding and storm surge are expected.

Those in low-lying areas of Mississippi have been advised to evacuate ahead of the storm, with mandatory evacuations ordered in Hancock County, about 60 miles east of New Orleans, for anyone living along the coast or near bayous, creeks, rivers, inlets or in mobile and modular homes.

Several shelters have been opened in the area to house evacuees. Some shelters were at reduced capacity to allow for distancing because of coronavirus, including in Alabama’s Mobile County, CNN affiliate WPMI reported.


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