Water Rescues Underway as Hurricane Sally Drenches Gulf Coast

Floodwaters move on the street in Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday. Hurricane Sally made landfall Wednesday near Gulf Shores, Alabama, as a Category 2 storm, pushing a surge of ocean water onto the coast and dumping torrential rain that forecasters said would cause dangerous flooding from the Florida Panhandle to Mississippi. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

(CN) — Hurricane Sally slammed the Alabama coast and Florida Panhandle on Wednesday after strengthening overnight to a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 105 mph and drenching rains forecasters warn will bring catastrophic flooding.

Sally’s painfully slow crawl with heavy rainfall upgraded to 5 mph Wednesday afternoon, up from the previous 3 mph, and continued to bring immense flooding. The hurricane made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, just before 5 a.m.

Devastation from Sally has been compared to the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which destroyed entire sections of subdivisions in the Florida Panhandle and closed roads for months in Pensacola.

“CATASTROPHIC AND LIFE THREATENING FLASH FLOODING UNFOLDING…” was the message in the National Weather Service’s 4 a.m. update Wednesday. “We look to be well on the way to a historic flooding rain event which could total upwards of around 30 inches or even perhaps higher in some areas before all is said and done.”

Water rescues were already underway by that time in Gulf Shore. Meanwhile, Sally’s deluge pounced upon Pensacola, Florida, with 30 inches of rain and more expected. Floodwaters turned Pensacola streets into waterways, and emergency vehicles were reportedly only responding to high water calls that were the result of excessive rain and high winds.

A section of the newly built Pensacola Bay Bridge that connects Pensacola to the neighboring city of Gulf Breeze, known by locals as the Three Mile Bridge, had fallen away Wednesday, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan said during a news conference.

Morgan said an assessment on the bridge had been done earlier in the day but did not indicate how extensive the damage was.

Gulf Breeze tweeted that the bridge was closed along with a photo that appeared to show a crane collapsed across it. It had first closed around 9 a.m. Tuesday after a barge collided with it.

Emergency crews in Escambia County were rescuing thousands early Wednesday, especially from the hard-hit Perdido Key area, due to heavy flooding, according to local ABC affiliate WEAR-TV. The rescues are taking place by boat and high-water vehicles, with the National Guard on the way. At least one family had been rescued from a tree.

Downtown Pensacola, Fla., on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Portions of Pensacola Beach were underwater, including much of downtown Pensacola, Sheriff Morgan told WEAR-TV.  

The National Weather Service tweeted around 9 a.m. Central time that with Sally “producing double-digit rainfall totals and wind still gusting [upwards of] 80 mph, falling trees are an increasing threat to life and property.” The agency urged residents in the area to be “#WeatherReady and ride out the storm in an interior room away from windows and exterior walls.”

Meanwhile, the official account for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tweeted “catastrophic flooding [is] expected to continue” from Sally as the storm continued westward at a devastating pace of roughly 3 mph.

Rainfall totals beyond 35 inches are possible across parts of Alabama and the Florida Panhandle, from Mobile Bay to Tallahassee, officials said. The storm is expected to continue to creep slowly the area through Wednesday, bringing with it historic flooding, including major rivers.

“Significant flash and urban flooding” as well as widespread minor to moderate river flooding is likely across inland portions of Alabama into Georgia, forecasters said.

Meanwhile, life-threatening storm surge was reported Wednesday morning along portions of the Alabama and Florida coast, including Pensacola Bay and southern portions of Mobile Bay.

Hurricane warnings are expected to continue into Wednesday afternoon for areas along the Mississippi and Alabama coastlines and western Florida Panhandle. Power was out for 500,000 residents of Alabama and Florida as of Wednesday morning, according to PowerOutage.US, with 60,000 residents in western Louisiana still without power following Hurricane Laura last month.

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