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Hurricane Sally makes landfall: Part of Pensacola bridge collapses amid 30 inches of rain; 'catastrophic flooding' in Alabama, Florida

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/16/2020 Ryan W. Miller and Annie Blanks, USA TODAY
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PENSACOLA, Fla. – Part of a bridge collapsed in Pensacola as 30 inches of rain and storm surge turned streets into white-capped rivers Wednesday after Hurricane Sally lurched ashore the Gulf Coast

Though downgraded to a tropical storm by Wednesday afternoon, Sally's strong winds battered Alabama and Florida as the center moved over the Panhandle. In Pensacola, Florida, a section of the Pensacola Bay Bridge collapsed, and downtown was largely underwater.

a man standing in front of a building: Flood waters move on the street, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in downtown Pensacola, Fla. © Gerald Herbert, AP Flood waters move on the street, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, in downtown Pensacola, Fla.

Flooding as the slow storm dumped intense rains has proven to be Sally's most serious danger: "Historic and catastrophic flooding, including widespread moderate to major river flooding, is unfolding," forecasters say.

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Photos and video from coastal areas showed trees downed, debris and boats thrown about and streets flooded. Around 9 a.m. local time, a water level station in Pensacola reported inundation around 5.5 feet above sea level, the National Hurricane Center said.

Flash flooding emergencies were in effect and rescue efforts underway for parts of southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as the storm could dump up to 35 inches of rain in isolated pockets.

Sally made landfall at 4:45 a.m. with winds of 105 mph near Gulf Shores, Alabama. The storm's center, picking up in speed at 5 mph as it moves north-northeast, will head across southeastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle through early Thursday, and will weaken to a tropical depression by Thursday morning.

Florida disaster relief: How to help Hurricane Sally victims

Some other major developments:

  • Sally is forecast to head inland Wednesday night across southeastern Alabama before reaching Georgia on Thursday and the Carolinas on Friday.
  • Around 10 to 20 inches of rain could be dumped on parts of Alabama and Florida, with isolated pockets getting up to 35 inches.
  • Sally is the eighth named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. this year — the most through Sept. 16 in recorded history.
  • More than 550,000 homes and businesses are without power in Alabama, Florida and Louisiana, according to the utility tracker poweroutage.us.

Here's a look at the latest news with Sally:

National Guard headed to Pensacola area

Authorities in Pensacola say 200 National Guard members will be arriving Thursday in response to Hurricane Sally, which hit the Gulf Coast with wind and drenching rains that have caused flooding.

At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Escambia County authorities announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the next three days. They also said there have been 377 rescues so far from water-stricken areas.

– Doyle Rice, USA TODAY | 3:50 p.m. CT

Heartbreak and devastation: Pensacola residents begin to venture out

There was little standing water along Nine Mile Road, but debris littered the area and surrounding residential roads. Signs above businesses were twisted and shredded like sheets of paper, and along thoroughfares like Chemstrand and Roberts roads lines of cars took turns navigating around downed trees and dangling powerlines.

In Cantonment, residents of the Bristol Park area saw a heartbreaking repeat of flooding that devastated the area in 2014. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, National Guard and Escambia County Fire Rescue spent much of the morning using high-water vehicles to rescue people in homes in the area.

Nearby, emergency responders blocked off access to Highway 297-A near Corral Drive and Ashbury Lane. A small lake had formed just outside at the nearby Ashbury Hills neighborhood, forcing commuters hoping to check on their loved ones and properties to find another way home.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 2:20 p.m. CT

Sally downgraded to tropical storm

Sally has weakened to a tropical storm but the Gulf Coast region still faces issues from the slow-moving storm’s drenching rains and flooding.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm’s maximum sustained winds decreased Wednesday afternoon to near 70 mph, with additional weakening expected as Sally moves inland.

As of 1 p.m. CDT, Sally was centered about 30 miles north-northeast of Pensacola, Florida, and moving north-northeast near 5 mph.

– Doyle Rice, USA TODAY | 1:30 p.m. CT

Sally brought third-highest storm surge on record to Pensacola

Sally’s powerful winds and very slow motion allowed Sally to pile up a large and damaging storm surge near the Florida/Alabama border, to the right of where the eye made landfall, according to meteorologist Jeff Masters, who writes for Yale Climate Connections

A peak storm tide of 5.6 feet occurred Wednesday morning at Pensacola, Florida – its third-highest water level on record, he said. Only Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 recorded higher levels in Pensacola. 

– Doyle Rice, USA TODAY | 1:15 p.m. CT

Section of Gulf State Park Pier destroyed

As Sally thrashed ashore near Gulf Shores, Alabama, the pier at Gulf State Park suffered significant damage, with the storm destroying large sections of the structure.

Montgomery resident Joe Whatley said friends sent photos from the scene showing much damage near the beach, with debris and a section of Gulf State Park Pier missing. Several boats were washed ashore. 

“This whole earth and seas all belong to God,” Whatley said. “He just lets us share them as long as we need to. If we’ve got to rebuild, we just rebuild and go on.”

– Alesha Williams Boyd, Montgomery Advertiser | 12 p.m. CT

Mobile home park residents band together: 'At least everybody is accounted for'

Brandon Anderson, a resident of the Oak Lodge Mobile Home Park west of Pensacola, brought out chainsaws Wednesday morning to help take a part massive trees blocking the entrance to the park. Soon, he had more than a dozen neighbors helping the effort.

“Thankfully they just came out and and started joining us,” Anderson said.

During the worst of the storm, Anderson said he saw flashes of light, what he thought to be power lines snapping. “I felt my house shaking. There’s a lot of light blasts, it’s a little scary,” he said.

Kenneth McElory said he woke up at 4 a.m. to screaming winds and green flashes of light around his house. The next thing he knew, a massive tree fell into his living room. Another tree fell on his car before he could escape.

McElroy said that besides feeling “homelesss,” he was optimistic that things would get better — someday, if not today.

“You can’t get down on yourself, it will make it worse,” he said. “At least everybody is accounted for.”

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 11:45 a.m. CT

Part of Pensacola bridge collapsed

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan confirmed a section of Three Mile Bridge is missing, the largest reported damage to date from Hurricane Sally. Santa Rosa County Emergency Management tweeted a photo showing the missing section of bridge.

Images indicate a crane fell on the bridge and knocked away a section of the road way. The brand new Three Mile Bridge, or Pensacola Bay Bridge, connects the city to Gulf Breeze.

The Florida Department of Transportation said it has been unable to assess any possible damage to the bridge due to ongoing high winds.

On Tuesday, a construction barge broke loose, struck the fishing pier and lodged itself under the Three Mile Bridge, forcing the closure of the bridge.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 10:23 a.m. CT

Downtown Pensacola largely underwater

Much of downtown Pensacola was underwater Wednesday morning, with floodwaters turning streets into white-capped rivers and downed trees bookending Palafox Street. Downtown was mostly empty, save for police officers and a few brave onlookers.

Nick Zangari, owner of New York Nick’s Badlands bar, was sitting in the doorway of his dark, empty bar on Palafox looking out into the street. Zangari has been at the bar since Monday, saying he wanted to keep an eye on his building. But he didn’t expect things to get as bad as they did overnight Tuesday.

A few blocks down, on Jefferson Street, floodwaters were submerging cars around the Holiday Inn Express and Pensacola Little Theatre. The floodwaters looked more like the Gulf of Mexico as winds tossed the water around.

People could be seen standing on the porch of the hotel, trapped and looking out over the water that used to be a parking lot.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 10:15 a.m. CT

Cajun Navy gives first look at damage to Alabama's Orange Beach

The United Cajun Navy has boots on the ground in Orange Beach and is surveying the damage so far from the Category 2 storm.

The nonprofit organization, dedicated to providing relief efforts and equipping rescue teams to areas affected by natural disasters, posted a video on Facebook that shows storm surge and heavy flooding on streets as well as an overturned boat on the side of the road next to a refrigerator.

– Daniella Medina, Montgomery Advertiser | 9 a.m. CT

Alabama: Rescues underway, heavy damage to homes, businesses 

Rescue crews are working to pull people from their homes damaged by Hurricane Sally and in the midst of massive flooding, Senior Forecaster David Eversole with the National Weather Service in Mobile said. 

"There's two flash flood emergencies currently in effect for coastal Baldwin over to Fort Walton Beach," he said.

Eversole said he's gotten reports of damage to several condos in the Gulf Shores area, as well as damage to the Surf Shop and Pink Pony Pub. Debris in Orange Beach sloshed against some condos as a boat floated its way between some of the buildings. 

"We know people are being rescued and we know there is severe property damage," he said. 

– Kirsten Fiscus, Montgomery Advertiser | 8:10 a.m. CT

Hurricane Sally has eerie similarities to Ivan – 16 years later

Sally’s path and landfall is eerily similar to Hurricane Ivan’s, which made landfall on the same day – Sept. 16 – in 2004, 16 years ago, in nearly the exact same place that Sally is projected to land. Ivan was a stronger Category 3 storm and devastated the area.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 8 a.m. CT

Flora-Bama beach bar survives Hurricane Sally

Not even wet and windy Hurricane Sally was able to blow away the Flora-Bama. The "most famous beach bar in the country" is still standing, according to a photo and caption the United Cajun Navy posted Wednesday morning at 5:23 a.m. CT. The volunteer rescue group is currently hosting relief efforts in Escambia County.

The photo shows no visible damage to its roof or its walls, but shows rising water surrounding the landmark bar on the border of Alabama and Florida.

– Daniella Medina, Pensacola News Journal | 8 a.m. CT

Rescue workers called upon amid flooding in Okaloosa County, Fla.

Okaloosa County rescue workers were called upon early Wednesday as Sally created flooding that required emergency evacuations in some areas.

"We are receiving reports of flooded roadways and homes and are actively engaged in water rescues and evacuations," Okaloosa Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox said in a 4 a.m. update to county officials. 

County spokesman Christopher Saul said 543 people in the south end of Okaloosa County were "in need of evacuation" as of about 5:30 a.m. Rescue workers had succeeded in helping 79 people evacuate from the Baker area, he said. 

– Tom McLaughlin, Northwest Florida Daily News | 7:30 a.m. CT

Hurricane Sally dumps 30 inches of rain on Pensacola

The National Weather Service in Mobile reported a trained spotter estimated 30 inches of rain in Northwest Pensacola. NAS Pensacola recorded 24.8 inches of rain and wind gusts up to 92 miles per hour.

Earlier Wednesday, the Weather Service issued a "rare" flash flood emergency warning.

"It’s when we have a flash flood that is posing a significant risk to lives and property,” said Dave Eversole, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, Alabama. “That means there’s people out there literally pulling people out of homes and rescuing people out of cars. It’s right along with a tornado emergency, it’s one of our two most serious warnings.”

Interstate 10, eastbound and westbound, at the Escambia Bay Bridge is also closed due to high sustained winds.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 7:30 a.m. CT

Weather Channel's Jim Cantore in Pensacola

Jim Cantore, the famed Weather Channel weatherman, was in Pensacola early Wednesday to track the storm. Cantore is notorious for reporting from some of the worst weather situations in the country.

He tweeted video of powerful winds tearing through the city Wednesday morning and shots from the Weather Channel showed him being battered by the heavy rain.

– Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal | 6:30 a.m. CT

Sally is 8th named storm to make landfall this year

Sally is the eighth named storm to make landfall in the continental U.S. this year — the most through Sept. 16 in recorded history, surpassing the seven storms of 1916, according to Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist and meteorologist at Colorado State University.

The record for most continental U.S. landfalls in a single Atlantic season is nine, also set in 1916.  The center of Sally's eye made landfall around 4:45 a.m. local time near near Gulf Shores, Alabama.

– John Bacon, USA TODAY | 4:45 a.m. CT

Tracking Sally: Here's the latest on hurricane's path

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hurricane Sally makes landfall: Part of Pensacola bridge collapses amid 30 inches of rain; 'catastrophic flooding' in Alabama, Florida

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