Hurricane Sally shocks Pensacola area with surprising strength, heavy wind and floods
Pensacola News Journal
Hurricane Sally shocked the Florida Panhandle by making landfall well east of projections and coming ashore in Gulf Shores, Alabama at 4:45 a.m Wednesday, unleashing torrential rain, historic flooding and strong winds that pummeled Pensacola for hours.
The slow-moving storm maintained a 2 mile per hour crawl in the Gulf of Mexico throughout the day Tuesday before her outer bands began inundating the coastline around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Pensacola sat squarely in the eyewall for nearly 12 hours, taking the worst of the storm’s wrath.
“Unfortunately this system is such a slow mover, it’s unreal,” said Dave Eversole, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mobile, at around 4 a.m. as the winds howled outside the NWS office.
Sally made a not-so-graceful exit from the state at around 2 p.m., meandering over the Florida/Alabama line at around 5 miles per hour — but not before causing catastrophic damage across Northwest Florida, which was largely unprepared for the storm’s ultimate path and veracity.
Sally surprised forecasters by strengthening into a strong Category 2 hurricane before making landfall, with top wind speeds of 110 miles per hour — just 1 mile per hour away from being a Category 3 major hurricane.
She dumped just over 20 inches of rain on Pensacola and prompted numerous tornado warnings throughout the day, though no tornadoes had been officially confirmed by the weather service as of Wednesday afternoon.
Escambia County water rescue teams saved 377 people from flooded areas, and paramedics responded to over 200 calls. The Escambia County Sheriff’s Office said they saved more than 100 people from high water situations. Santa Rosa County water rescue teams performed 51 rescues, responded to 484 9-1-1 calls and took 510 administrative calls since midnight.
Both Santa Rosa and Escambia’s first responders were unable to respond to calls for several hours Wednesday morning due to the treacherous weather. Escambia sent swift water rescue crews out a few hours after daybreak to rescue people in West Pensacola who were trapped in their homes or cars in the rising floodwaters.
Downtown saw the third highest storm surge on record, with water pouring over the Palafox Pier and down Palafox Street and beyond. As of Wednesday afternoon, Jefferson Street, Main Street, and everything from Barrancas Avenue to Tarragona Street was still underwater.
Road closures due to downed power lines in both counties were too numerous to count, and authorities were urging people to stay off the roads so first responders could do their jobs.
And a large section of the Three Mile Bridge was reportedly hit by a crane and dislodged, rendering the bridge useless for at least the next 30 to 60 days. Multiple Skanska construction barges were floating loose in the bay, coming dangerously close to both the Escambia Bay Bridge and Bayfront Parkway.
Across the county, people began trying to pick up the pieces as soon as it was safe to go outside Wednesday. Neighbors broke out chainsaws to chop up downed trees in the roads so emergency crews could get by. Those with generators prepared food and walked it across the street to neighbors without power.