Gulf Coast residents are told to brace for “life-threatening” floods.
As Hurricane Sally churned slowly over the Gulf Coast early Tuesday morning, creeping along at just 2 miles per hour as it approached the coast, officials warned residents from Mississippi to Florida to prepare for possibly devastating flooding with the storm surge and heavy rain expected to build in intensity over the next 36 hours.
The storm, which had maximum sustained winds of 85 m.p.h. at 10 a.m., is expected to pass southeastern Louisiana and take a northward turn toward the Mississippi coast on Tuesday afternoon. It is expected to make landfall Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning.
“Although little change in strength is forecast until landfall occurs, Sally is still expected to be a dangerous hurricane when it moves onshore along the north-central Gulf Coast,” the National Hurricane Center said early on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning remained in effect for an area stretching eastward from the mouth of the Pearl River on the Louisiana-Mississippi border to Navarre, near the tip of the Florida panhandle — a distance of about 200 miles that includes Mississippi’s and Alabama’s entire coastlines.
A tropical storm warning covered the area west of the Pearl River to Grand Isle, La. — including metropolitan New Orleans — and east of Navarre to Indian Pass, Fla.
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi warned residents that the state stood to “bear the brunt” of Sally.
“This is the real deal, and it deserves your attention,” Mr. Reeves wrote on Twitter late Monday afternoon.
Across the Gulf Coast, officials urged residents to prepare for a volley of dangers, including flash floods, tornadoes and strong winds.
The surge could reach as high as six to nine feet from Ocean Springs, Miss., which is just east of Biloxi, to Dauphin Island and the Mobile Bay on the southwest Alabama coast, according to the National Hurricane Center. Forecasters from the center also warned of “extreme life-threatening” flash floods heading into Wednesday.
And meteorologists said a consequence of the storm’s slow pace was torrents of heavy rainfall compounding the surge, reaching as high as 30 inches in some areas from the Florida panhandle to Mississippi.
Mandatory evacuation orders have been issued in low-lying areas along the coast.
Even before the storm shifted toward the Alabama shore, officials there moved to close beaches and urge residents and tourists to leave areas prone to flooding.
“Alabamians are no stranger to tropical weather and the significant damage these storms can do,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement on Monday.
As Sally nears, Louisiana is still recovering from Hurricane Laura.
Sally was expected to strike the Gulf Coast even as it continues to recover from the effects of Hurricane Laura, which was one of the most powerful storms to pummel the U.S. mainland when it struck Louisiana last month.
Laura’s storm surge inundated a stretch of Louisiana’s western coast, and its winds of up to 150 miles per hour ravaged many communities, particularly in and around Lake Charles, a city of roughly 78,000 people near the Texas border. Roughly half a million people evacuated in advance, many of them heading east, toward New Orleans, for a time finding themselves squarely in the path of Sally.
Laura’s anticipated storm surge of up to 20 feet — billed as potentially “unsurvivable” — turned out to be about 11 feet at most. And by many accounts, Louisiana was more prepared for the storm than it had been for Hurricane Rita in 2005, which became a benchmark storm for a generation.
Still, Laura unleashed misery and ruin, and its wind damage was said to be just as severe as Rita’s. As of late Tuesday, about 50,000 people in the Lake Charles area were still without power, according to a database maintained by Entergy, a large utility that supplies electricity in the area.
The office of Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, said on Monday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already paid more than $89 million to people affected by Laura, more than two-thirds of it in housing assistance.
Mr. Edwards told residents 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.
In the hurricane’s path: An island that’s seen its share of storms.
As Hurricane Sally crawled through the Gulf of Mexico on Monday, it was pummeling a patch of sea south of Dauphin Island, Ala., with sustained winds of 61 miles per hour. And the island was one of the places where the National Hurricane Center had forecast storm surges of four to seven feet.
Dauphin Island has seen its share of big storms since the 1990s. Two back-to-back hurricanes, Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005, destroyed more than 300 homes, for example.
The mayor, Jeff Collier, urged residents in a Facebook post on Monday to evacuate the island’s west end. He said the causeway that connects the island with the mainland, which was temporarily closed in June after a tropical storm caused flooding on the west end, would probably “become impassable at some point.”
Photos and videos posted to social media on Monday showed gray storm clouds looming above Dauphin Island homes sitting on wooden stilts, steps from the Gulf of Mexico.
“You can see clearly that the waves are up and the water’s starting to come over the road a little bit,” Greg Nordstrom, a meteorology instructor at Mississippi State University, said in a video that he made while leaving the island on Monday evening. “So if you’re on Dauphin Island, the time to leave is now.”
In 2012, a Times investigation found that Dauphin Island, which at the time had roughly 1,300 year-round residents, was one of many beachfront communities in the United States where federal subsidies had helped people replace small beach shacks with larger, more valuable homes — often with little consideration of whether it made sense to keep rebuilding in disaster-prone areas.
At least $80 million, adjusted for inflation, had gone into patching up Dauphin Island since 1979, or more than $60,000 for every permanent resident, the Times reported. And that did not include payments of $72 million to homeowners from the highly subsidized federal flood insurance program.
The storm will complicate efforts to contain the coronavirus.
The states that are expected to be hardest hit by Hurricane Sally have already faced some of America’s highest rates of coronavirus infection.
The approaching storm will not make things easier, with Louisiana deciding to close most of its testing sites on Tuesday. Alabama expects testing sites operated by the Department of Public Health to be closed both Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Obviously the Covid public health emergency doesn’t take time off in order for us to deal with the natural disasters that we’ve seen of late,” Gov. John Bel Edwards of Louisiana said on Monday. “So everything we do, we have to be mindful that we’re still doing them in a public health emergency.”
Mississippi has seen a decline in virus cases in recent weeks, but it has had more deaths per capita than any other state over the past seven days. Gov. Tate Reeves said that planning for a hurricane was always complicated, and that “the life of Covid makes it even more challenging.”
Mr. Reeves said he had spoken with Mr. Edwards about Louisiana’s experience of managing the coronavirus during Hurricane Laura, which caused significant damage and forced about 18,000 people into temporary housing.
In ‘one of the most active seasons on record,’ several other storms are churning in the Atlantic.
As Sally threatened the Gulf Coast, three other major storms churned in the Atlantic.
Hurricane Paulette packed winds of 105 miles per hour about 400 miles northeast of Bermuda, and threatened to bring dangerous surf and rip current conditions to Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles through Tuesday night.
Tropical Storm Teddy was gaining strength about 1,000 miles east of the Lesser Antilles, and was projected to become a “large and powerful hurricane” in the coming days.
In May, government scientists accurately predicted the coming hurricane season was “expected to be a busy one,” with as many as 19 named storms. In August, the scientists updated their forecast, saying there could be as many as 25 named storms in “one of the most active seasons on record.”
Tropical Storm Vicky was the 20th named storm of the season. Each year, the World Meteorological Organization maintains and assigns the lists of names for the Atlantic basin.
Arthur, which formed off the coast of Florida in May, was the first named tropical storm, followed by Bertha, which made landfall near Charleston, S.C., later that month, before the official start of the season.
The 21-name list is recycled every six years with male and female names alternating alphabetically. The last name on this season’s list is Wilfred. If forecasters use it, which is likely, they will have to turn to a Greek alphabet system that includes 24 names, beginning with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
Reporting was contributed by Chelsea Brasted, Johnny Diaz, Mike Ives, Rick Rojas, Daniel Victor and Will Wright.