NEW ORLEANS — The Gulf Coast was bracing yet again on Monday for a barrage of storm surge and pounding rain as Hurricane Sally lurched toward the region less than a month after Hurricane Laura’s powerful winds pulverized a section of the coast.
With Sally, officials warned of a storm whose threat came, in part, from its sluggish speed, with the extended time it percolates in the Gulf of Mexico able to intensify its scope and severity. The slow-moving storm, which grew to Category 2 hurricane strength on Monday, could dump 20 inches of rain in some places, in addition to delivering as much as 11 feet in storm surge.
“It is still anticipated that we are going to bear the brunt of this storm,” Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi said during a briefing on Monday, with meteorologists predicting that Sally would scrape southeast Louisiana before the center of the storm makes landfall in Mississippi early Wednesday.
“Now is the time to prepare,” Mr. Reeves said. “Be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
Officials in Mississippi and Louisiana urged residents to hunker down for a volley of dangers, including flash floods, tornadoes and strong winds. An expanse of the coastline reaching from west of New Orleans to the Alabama and Florida state line faced the possibility of hurricane-level conditions, meteorologists said.
Forecasts show that the western flank of the storm will begin hitting the remote coastal areas of Louisiana on Tuesday morning, then shift to the northeast, with the eye of the storm expected to make landfall near Biloxi, Miss., on Wednesday morning.
Mandatory evacuations have been issued in low-lying areas along the coast, and in New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell ordered people living outside the protection of the city’s levee system to clear out. Throughout the city and beyond, residents were loading up sandbags and stocking up on supplies.
“We’re concerned about those levees and what it means for potential flooding,” said Chris Dier, a teacher who lives in St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans. “If it deviates 10 or 15 miles west, then it’s going to be right over St. Bernard Parish, so we just have some concerns because Katrina also had a similar path.”
In Alabama, state officials closed beaches and urged people in coastal areas prone to flooding, particularly tourists, to get out before the rain and winds arrive.
The surge could reach as high as seven to 11 feet near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and upward of five feet along a broader stretch of the Gulf Coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. Much of the region can also expect as much as a foot of rain.
Sally will strike eastern Louisiana as the state is still clawing its way back from the devastation from Laura, which was one of the most powerful hurricanes to pummel the state when it made landfall last month as a Category 4 storm. The storm surge inundated a stretch of the state’s western coast, and its winds shredded many communities, particularly in and around Lake Charles, a city of roughly 78,000 people near the Texas border.
Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana told residents on Monday that Sally would not distract from the work of cleaning up after Laura and restoring electricity and other utilities to the thousands who remained without service.
Still, the aftermath of Laura complicated preparations for the looming storm, as many who had fled their destroyed homes or untenable living conditions have now found themselves squarely in Sally’s projected path. Nearly 12,000 people were being sheltered in 36 New Orleans hotels, state officials said.
Sally, the 18th named storm of the season, is approaching the Gulf Coast during what has already been a punishing year. The region has been affected by the coronavirus, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods and a summer of demonstrations against police brutality and racism.
And it comes as climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous in many ways, including increased rainfall and more powerful storm surge.
Officials found themselves making familiar warnings as they urged residents to prepare themselves while they still had the time. This year’s hurricane season has given the region a reminder that, no matter how precise forecasters can be, the storms maintain a certain capriciousness and carry with them the element of surprise.
In August, officials issued grave warnings that tandem storms, Marco and Laura, could both reach hurricane strength and hit the state within 48 hours of each other, which forecasters described as a rare phenomenon.
But Marco fizzled before making landfall and Laura — which mustered incredible strength before pounding the coast — did not produce storm surge at the “unsurvivable” magnitude that forecasters had predicted.
For many during such a tumultuous year, concern about Sally was competing against a sense of exasperation and fatigue.
Alexis Marceaux, who lives in the Mid-City neighborhood of New Orleans, made plans over the weekend to evacuate, but she abandoned them after seeing the updated forecast maps on Monday afternoon. Initially, she had planned to drive east, but the storm’s expected path shifted in that direction. Heading west would put her in an area still reeling from Laura.
“It’s always a tossup and a gamble,” said Ms. Marceaux, a teacher and the frontwoman of the band Sweet Crude, which performs in Louisiana French. “It’s all way worse with everything going on in the world.”
Chelsea Brasted reported from New Orleans, and Rick Rojas from Atlanta.