'Huge rainmaker': Hurricane Sally threatens historic floods

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Waves crash near a pier, at Gulf State Park, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Gulf Shores, Ala. Hurricane Sally is crawling toward the northern Gulf Coast at just 2 mph, a pace that's enabling the storm to gather huge amounts of water to eventually dump on land. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbrt)

WAVELAND, Miss. – Heavy rain, pounding surf and flash floods hit parts of the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama coast on Tuesday as Hurricane Sally lumbered toward land at a painfully slow pace, threatening as much as 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain and dangerous, historic flooding.

The storm's center churned offshore 65 miles (105 kilometers) south-southeast of Mobile, Alabama, as Sally crept north-northeast toward an expected Wednesday landfall at 2 mph (3 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center. The forecast map showed the center likely coming ashore in Alabama, near the Florida line.

Hurricane force winds extended 40 miles (65 kilometers). Rain fell sideways and began covering roads in Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile. More than 80,000 power customers were without electricity, according to poweroutage.us .

Up to a foot (more than 30 centimeters) of rain had fallen already on the coast by Tuesday night and Sally's lumbering pace meant there would likely be extended deluges.

“A hurricane moving at 2 mph is stalled for all intents and purposes,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. “If they aren’t moving along and they just kind of sit there, you’re going to get a ridiculous amount of rain.”

Sally strengthened late Tuesday, with sustained winds reaching 90 mph (145 kph). Winds had reached 100 mph (161 kph) on Monday. The National Hurricane Center expected Sally to remain a Category 1 hurricane when it comes ashore, adding “historic life-threatening flash flooding is likely."

By Tuesday night, hurricane warnings stretched from coastal Mississippi to the Florida Panhandle. There also was a threat the storm could spawn tornadoes and dump isolated rain accumulations of 30 inches (76 centimeters) in spots from the Florida Panhandle to southeast Mississippi.

Heavy rain and surf pounded the barrier island of Navarre Beach, Florida, on Tuesday and road signs wobbled in the wind. Rebecca Studstill, who lives inland, was wary of getting stuck on the island, saying police close bridges once the wind and water get too high. “Just hunkering down would probably be the best thing for folks out here,” she said.