Downtown Pensacola was totally submerged in water on Wednesday, as Hurricane Sally hit Florida’s panhandle and southern Alabama overnight, bringing several feet of rain, “catastrophic and life-threatening” flooding, widespread power outages, and 105 mph winds.
More than two feet of rain hit Pensacola and downtown streets were inundated by a five-foot storm surge—the third largest storm surge in Pensacola’s history, according to meteorologist Jim Cantore. Cars were submerged up to their windshields, water reached the windows of local businesses, and a chunk of the Three Mile Bridge completely washed away.
“We believe that this is an epic proportion flooding event,” Escambia County Public Safety Director Jason Rogers told WEAR-TV. “There is extremely high water, moving water that is very dangerous. We don’t believe that we have yet seen the worst of the flooding.”
The worst was yet to come, too. High tide isn’t expected until Wednesday afternoon in Pensacola, and a painfully slow-moving surge could leave homes swamped and people trapped across the Deep South for days.
Unlike most hurricanes, Sally is moving extremely slowly—just 2 mph—which has increased the risk of prolonged flooding, experts say. The Category 2 storm’s center was “inching its way inland,” National Hurricane Center forecaster Daniel Brown said Wednesday morning. (Hurricane Harvey was also a slow-moving hurricane and inundated the region with four feet of water for several days.)
Another eight to 12 inches of rainfall were expected on Wednesday afternoon. As Sally moves inland over Alabama, parts of Georgia, and western South Carolina on Wednesday and Thursday, more heavy rainfall and flooding are expected.
Across the Gulf Coast, more than 400,000 homes and businesses were without power, according to poweroutage.us.
Rescue crews were going door-to-door in Pensacola on Wednesday although there were no reports of casualties or injuries yet.
In Orange Beach, Alabama, at least 50 people were rescued from flooded homes and moved to shelters, Mayor Tony Kennon said. He said the water was too high to get to some residents but they were currently safe.
In Mobile, Alabama, a pier collapsed and trees were blown into homes. In Baldwin County, sandwiched between Mobile and Pensacola, the walls of a high-rise condominium were blown out by 100 mph winds.
Grant Brown, public information officer for Baldwin County’s resort city of Gulf Shores, said the storm rattled homes from 3 a.m. onward.
“It was horrible,” he told the Montgomery Advertiser. “I don’t ever want to go through it again. It was dark, noisy, and the windows were shaking.”
The hurricane hit Alabama 14 years to the day since Hurricane Ivan, the state’s last Category 2 storm.
In addition to West Coast wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic, it has also been a record-breaking hurricane season this year for the South. Five storms are simultaneously brewing in the Atlantic this week, and parts of Louisiana and Texas are still mopping up after Hurricane Laura.
Tropical Storm Teddy, located off the east Lesser Antilles, was upgraded to a hurricane and expected to become a major Category 4 storm on Thursday.